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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 September 2005, 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK
Probe set for asteroid touch down
The asteroid is named after Hideo Itokawa, a father of Japan's space programme

Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft will soon move into place for an historic attempt to collect a sample from an asteroid.

During its encounter with asteroid Itokawa, Hayabusa will touch down twice and send a small robot to the surface.

This could have great scientific value; the sample could help researchers learn more about the raw materials that made up the early Solar System.

Japanese scientists have also proposed names for significant regions of the asteroid's surface.

Hayabusa has been collecting spectral data and images of Itokawa from its "gate" position, about 20km (12 miles) from the asteroid.

Over the next few days, the probe will move into its "home" position, just 7km (4.3 miles) from the asteroid.

Two tries

In November, the probe will make two brief touchdowns on the asteroid.

Because of the low gravity on these bodies, the probe cannot stay on its surface for very long.

Artist's impression of Hayabusa, Jaxa
Hayabusa was launched from Japan in May 2003
Each time it "lands", it will fire a metal pellet into the surface at 300m/s. After the firings, the probe takes off to collect the dust ejected by the impact.

Hayabusa will conduct a practice run before the two sample collection attempts.

The Japanese probe will also deploy a small robotic "hopper" called Minerva. This will perform several 10m-high jumps on the surface, taking pictures and temperature readings.

Mission scientists have named the smooth terrain on the asteroid the Muses Sea, after the home of the goddesses of arts and sciences in Greek mythology.

A possible crater on Itokawa has been called Uchinoura Bay, after the spaceport area on Kyushu island where Hayabusa blasted off.

Another potential impact structure has been named Woomera Desert after the area where the mission's sample return capsule is to be recovered.

Hayabusa's sample-return cannister should parachute back to Earth in June 2007.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) launched Hayabusa on 9 May 2003 aboard an M-V-5 rocket.

Asteroid probe on close approach
13 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature
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08 Apr 04 |  Science/Nature
Earth almost put on impact alert
24 Feb 04 |  Science/Nature

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