Monday, November 14, 2005

Japanese Mini-Robot 'Lost in Space'

Hayabusa Mission Minerva Inset
Japanese mini-robot vehicle lost in space


     A micro-rover went missing just after it was released from a Japanese spacecraft to conduct an exploratory mission on asteroid Itokawa, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

     The agency's exploration spacecraft Hayabusa released the Micro/Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid--Minerva for short--to explore the surface of the asteroid Saturday.

     Hayabusa was scheduled to land on the asteroid on Saturday and Nov. 25 to sample rocks on the surface in what is to be the first attempt to sample rocks on an asteroid.

     On Saturday morning, Hayabusa began its approach to Itokawa from 1.4 kilometers above the asteroid, the agency said. It descended at a speed of about three centimeters per second, and was 55 meters from the asteroid in the afternoon.

     The spacecraft had been planned to release the tiny robot vehicle, 10 centimeters in diameter weighing about 600 grams, at this point and then propel itself to a higher altitude. However, it started to ascend quicker than planned.

     As a result, it released the robot vehicle about 200 meters above the surface of the asteroid. The agency said Minerva fell out of the asteroid's orbit and disappeared because it was released too far from the asteroid's surface.

     The agency said at a press conference on Saturday that the mission was now in jeopardy.

     "It's highly possible that the robot will never be able to reach the surface of the asteroid," a JAXA official told reporters.

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