Tuesday, September 06, 2005

After long trek, unsung Japanese spacecraft nears asteroid target - Yahoo! News

Launched to the world's near-total indifference on May 9, 2003, the little probe Hayabusa ("Falcon") is now on the brink of rendezvousing with a 630-metre (yard) asteroid on a mission that could prove historic.

If all goes well, Hayabusa will be the first spacecraft to bring home raw material from an asteroid, part of the primeval rubble left over from the making of the Solar System.

Hayabusa, driven by an ion engine, a slow-but-steady form of propulsion which leaves maximum volume for scientific instruments, is now just 750 kilometers (475 miles) from the asteroid Itokawa, the mission website (www.jaxa.jp) of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said on Monday.

The spacecraft will also deploy a little robot, about the size of a large beer can, called Minerva, which for a couple of days will "hop" around the asteroid's surface, taking pictures and measuring the temperature.

Then it will be time to head for home. In June 2007, Hayabusa's precious payload, of just 100 milligrammes, should land in the Australian Outback.

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