It's been bust and boom for Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft, intended to establish the country as a serious player in space exploration. Last November the probe approached the asteroid Itokawa and tried to lower a lander onto its surface. The first attempt to set the craft down on the rotating rock had to be aborted, but a second try had better luck. JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, announced that Hayabusa had apparently collected bits of Itokawa and would now head back to Earth to drop off the first-ever samples of an asteroid.
The process was exquisitely delicate because the asteroid has only about a hundred-thousandth of Earth's gravity. Drilling into Itokawa would have risked flinging the lander into space. Instead the lander shot a small metal pellet into the rock and collected about one-tenth of an ounce of dust. During its descent, the lander dropped a navigation target containing 877,490 names (including Arthur C. Clarke and Buzz Aldrin) collected by e-mail and postcards from around the world.
In early December the Hayabusa team restarted the probe's ion engine to begin the 180-million-mile journey home. Then another glitch occurred: A fuel leak temporarily cut off contact with Hayabusa, causing it to miss a crucial maneuver. The payload, originally scheduled to parachute into the Australian outback in June of next year, now won't get here until 2010. When it finally arrives, the asteroid fragments will allow scientists to test theories about how the solar system emerged from a cloud of gas and dust—assuming everything runs smoothly down on Itokawa's surface. JAXA spokesman Atsushi Wako says, "We won't know whether we really got a sample until the craft gets home."