A Japanese rocket lifted off yesterday with the world's first probe designed to bring back samples from the surface of an asteroid, a journey that will take four years and cover nearly 600 million kilometers.
If successful, "Muses-C" will be the first probe to make a two-way trip to an asteroid. A NASA probe collected data for two weeks from the surface of the Manhattan-sized asteroid Eros in 2001, but it did not return with samples.
The probe was launched yesterday atop a 31m-tall, ¥7 billion (US$60 million) M-5 rocket from the Kagoshima Space Center on the southern Japan island of Kyushu.
The unmanned Muses-C is to make three brief touch-and-go contacts with 1998 SF36, a tiny asteroid some 290 million kilometers away from Earth.
It will then bring back a gram or so of the football-shaped asteroid's surface, the first space rocks to be gathered since the US Apollo lunar exploration program ended 30 years ago.
It will take the 500kg Muses-C about two years to get there, but the asteroid -- only 690m long and 300m wide -- is among the Earth's closest neighbors.
Japan's space agencies, though plagued by budget overruns and facing a major restructuring later this year, have recently marked a series of successes.
In March, an H2-A rocket, Japan's main launch vehicle, put this country's first spy satellites into orbit. It was the fifth-consecutive successful launch for the H2-A, which Japan hopes will one day compete in the commercial satellite launching business.
The Muses-C was launched atop the smaller M-5 rocket. Japan launched its first M-5 in 1997, and had three successful liftoffs in a row.
But the failure of the fourth M-5 rocket to put a probe into orbit in February 2000 forced planners to postpone the Muses-C launch, and aim it at a different asteroid than originally intended.
A failure in its altitude regulating system caused a further delay and swelling costs prompted NASA to shelve a project to build a tiny, wheeled robot for the probe.
The plan now is to gather surface samples from the asteroid in June 2005 and parachute them in a re-entry capsule to a range near the southern Australia town of Woomera two years later.
Muses-C will first conduct a three-month survey of the asteroid from an altitude of about 20km. It will then move in close enough to fire a small bullet into the asteroid and collect the ejected fragments.
To boost interest, the public was invited to submit names over the Internet to be sent into space with the probe -- 877,490 were collected and have been etched on an aluminum-foil wrapper around a grapefruit-sized marker that will be dropped onto the asteroid's surface.