Japanese space programme hit by new setback

A Japanese spacecraft that failed on its landmark mission to collect asteroid samples suffered a new setback on Wednesday with its return to Earth delayed by three years until 2010.

The Hayabusa spacecraft, which last month approached the asteroid 290-million kilometres from Earth, has been out of control since Friday because of a gas burst caused by leaking fuel.

The 6m unmanned spacecraft was set to depart in mid-December, when the distance between Earth and the asteroid is ideal, and drop a capsule in the Australian outback in June 2007.

But the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said it now expects the spacecraft back in June 2010, as it will be another three years before the travelling distance is practical.

”This is disappointing, but we’ll spend the coming year to rescue the craft and retrieve it in June 2010 if we can control it again by the beginning of 2007,” project manager Junichiro Kawaguchi said at a press conference.

”There is a good possibility that the craft can be controlled again,” he added.

The expedition was to be the first to retrieve samples from an asteroid, helping scientists learn more about how the solar system was created and study how to deflect a potential celestial object on a collision course with Earth.

In a humiliating setback, the space agency said last week that the spacecraft that was launched in May 2003 likely failed to collect the asteroid dust.

The mission was all the more difficult because the potato-shaped Itokawa asteroid — 540m long and 270m wide at the larger end — is revolving and has very low gravity, making it tough for Hayabusa to land on the jagged surface.

Hideo Nagasu, former director of the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan, dismissed criticism that the mission was a complete failure.

”I think they are doing a good job,” he said. ”The asteroid is believed to have remained in its initial condition from the time the solar system was created. They innovated to send a spacecraft there and take samples.

”The craft did arrive there and sent photos of Itokawa. It was such a challenging mission,” he said. ”It wouldn’t be fair to criticise that the mission’s achievement was zero.”

But he doubted the space programme would try again to take samples from an asteroid after the 12,7-billion yen ($100-million) Itokawa mission.

”There are many projects lining up after this,” Nagasu said.

Japan’s space programme has been eyeing more ambitious projects since it successfully sent a weather satellite into space in February.

That was Japan’s first launch since November 2003 when it had to destroy a rocket carrying a satellite to spy on North Korea shortly after lift-off when one of two rocket boosters failed to separate.

The failure was all the more embarrassing as it came one month after China, Japan’s neighbour and growing rival, became the third country after the United States and the former Soviet Union to launch a successful manned space flight. — Sapa-AFP

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