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Japan Probe Lands on Asteroid

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TOKYO - A Japanese space probe made history on Saturday when it landed on the surface of an asteroid and then collected rock samples that could give clues to the origin of the solar system.

The probe, called Hayabusa -- Japanese for "falcon" -- succeeded in the delicate task which scientists have likened to landing a jumbo jet in a moving Grand Canyon. It was its second and final attempt.

After analyzing data transmitted from the unmanned probe, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said Hayabusa had touched down on the asteroid, nearly 300 million km (190 million miles) from Earth.

"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," Science and Technology Minister Iwao Matsuda said in a statement.

Hayabusa has already sent back detailed images of the asteroid. In a photograph published on JAXA Web site, the probe's shadow can be made out on its surface.

After a voyage of 2- years, Hayabusa on Sunday had touched down on the surface of the 548 meter-long potato-shaped asteroid, named Itokawa, marking the first landing by a Japanese spacecraft on an extraterrestrial body.

It remained there for 30 minutes, but had failed to drop the equipment for collecting surface material.

JAXA officials had said Saturday's attempt would be the final one as Hayabusa did not have enough fuel for another attempt and would have to head back to Earth.

The probe's capsule containing the samples is due to land in the Australian outback in June 2007.

Asteroids are believed to contain rocks that have remained largely unchanged since the early days of the solar system and could thus offer valuable information about its origins.

Information about their structure could also be vital if an asteroid were found to be on a collision course with the earth.

The asteroid is named after pioneering Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa.

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