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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 November 2005, 10:07 GMT
Probe 'gathers asteroid material'
Asteroid Itokawa, Jaxa

A Japanese probe has become the first craft to collect samples from the surface of an asteroid, scientists say.

The probe, called Hayabusa - Japanese for "falcon" - briefly touched down on the Itokawa asteroid and fired a projectile to loosen surface material.

Scientists believe it collected the debris, but will only be sure when Hayabusa returns to Earth in 2007.

Moon rocks have been analysed before, but asteroids could contain material from the birth of the Solar System.

Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) confirmed that Hayabusa touched down on Itokawa for a few seconds.

Artist's impression of Hayabusa
Hayabusa is designed to gather asteroid dust for return to Earth
Touching down on the asteroid, which is 290 million km (180 million miles) from Earth, was as tough as landing a jumbo jet in the Grand Canyon, a Jaxa spokesman added.

The probe fired a small metal ball into the surface and apparently collected the resulting powdery debris.

"The process of sampling also seems to have gone very well," said Jaxa's Kiyotaka Yashiro.

Japan's Science and Technology Minister Iwao Matsuda praised the effort.

"I am delighted to hear that it has collected the samples. It is the world's first such feat and it will contribute greatly to mankind's exploration of space."

Celestial secrets

Saturday's announcement by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) came after a series of problems with the spacecraft.

Last Sunday, Hayabusa made a first touchdown on the rotating asteroid - but it failed to collect material after temporarily losing contact with Earth.

A separate attempt to land a miniature robot on the asteroid was also unsuccessful.

Hayabusa was launched in May 2003 and has until early December before it must leave orbit and begin its journey home. It is expected to return to Earth and land in the Australian outback in June 2007.

Examining asteroid samples is expected to help unlock secrets of how celestial bodies were formed because their surfaces are believed to have remained relatively unchanged over the ages, unlike those of larger bodies such the planets or moons.

Itokawa, named after the Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa, is 690m (2,300 ft) long and 300m (1,000 ft) wide.

See computer generated images of the probe's mission

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