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Japan's asteroid probe did land, after all

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Japan's Hayabusa space probe did land on its asteroid target, mission scientists confirmed today, but was not able to activate its sample collection equipment while it was on Itokawa's surface.

The spacecraft, which is on a mission to collect a sample of the asteroid Ikotawa and return it to Earth, lost contact with mission controllers for three hours on Sunday, just as it was approaching its landing site. Initially the Japanese space agency (Jaxa) announced that the landing attempt had failed, the BBC reports, but closer examination of the data revealed that it had in fact been on the surface for about 30 minutes.

Although the collection equipment failed, the team says it is possible that the craft might have disturbed enough dust just by landing for some to have been scooped up. The craft is designed to fire pellets into the asteroid and lift off from the surface to collect the dust thrown up.

"The object has not been co-operative at all. It is an incredibly nasty place to land," Dr Andy Cheng of Johns Hopkins University told the BBC.

"The surface is strewn with very angular, large rocks - much more so than was expected. They've picked the most benign looking spot, but it has not turned out to be very benign."

Jaxa is expected to announce today whether or not it will make a second attempt at landing and collecting a sample.

Weighed against it are several critical factors: the craft needs to begin its journey back to Earth this week, to make the most of the dynamics of the solar system. But it isn't clear how much fuel is left and its control systems are in pretty poor shape. ®

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