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Japanese craft lands on asteroid

TOKYO — A Japanese spacecraft briefly touched down on an asteroid Saturday and apparently succeeded in collecting surface samples, Japan's space agency said.

The Hayabusa probe touched down for only a few seconds, but long enough to be able to collect powdery material from its surface, said Kiyotaka Yashiro, a spokesman for JAXA, Japan's space agency.

Yashiro said the probe lifted off and was preparing to transmit data to mission controllers on Earth.

Officials will know if the mission fully succeeded after scientists examine the data, expected much later Saturday.

"The initial movements and operations look very good," Yashiro said.

It was Hayabusa's second landing on the asteroid, following a faulty touchdown Sunday. JAXA lost contact with the probe during Sunday's landing attempt and didn't even realize it had landed until days later — long after Hayabusa had lifted off into orbit.

Hayabusa was launched in May 2003 and has until early December before it must begin its 180 million mile journey home. It is expected to return to Earth with the samples in June 2007.

Examining asteroid samples is expected to help unlock secrets of how celestial bodies were formed because their surfaces are believed to have remained relatively unchanged over the eons, unlike those of larger bodies such the planets or moons, JAXA said.

A NASA probe collected data for two weeks from the Manhattan-sized asteroid Eros in 2001, but did not return with samples.

The asteroid is named after Hideo Itokawa, the father of rocket science in Japan, and is orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. It is 2,300 feet long and 1,000 feet wide.