Japan hopeful probe has asteroid dust

Scientists believe a Japanese space probe has collected samples from the surface of an asteroid, about 300 million km from Earth.

A Japanese space probe landed on an asteroid and apparently collected samples from the surface on Saturday, Japan's space agency said.

Scientists believe the probe, called Hayabusa, Japanese for "falcon," succeeded in its mission on its second attempt. But they won't know for certain whether it actually collected samples until it returns to Earth in June 2007.

Hayabusa landed on the asteroid on Nov. 20 and stayed for about 30 minutes, but failed to drop equipment that would allow it to collect a sample.

On Saturday, Hayabusa touched down for only a few seconds, but it was long enough to collect powder from the asteroid's surface, said Kiyotaka Yashiro, spokesman for JAXA, Japan's space agency.

The probe fired a small metal ball into the surface to loosen material.

"The initial movements and operations look very good," Yashiro said. "The process of sampling also seems to have gone very well."

It is hoped the material will yield clues to the origin of the solar system. Asteroids, unlike larger space bodies such as the moon, are believed to contain rocks that have remained largely unchanged since the early days of the solar system.

The Japanese agency has named the asteroid Itokawa after the father of Japanese rocket development, Hideo Itokawa. The asteroid, 290 million kilometres from Earth, was discovered by U.S. scientists in 1998.