for National Geographic News
A Japanese spacecraft has delivered an unprecedented look at one of the near-Earth asteroids that frequently fly by our planet.
Hayabusa, Japanese for "falcon," achieved a close encounter with asteroid 25143 Itokawa last November.
At 1,640 feet (500 meters) long, the asteroid is a small, rocky, "S-type" commonly found in the inner regions of the main asteroid belt (virtual solar system).
To some observers Itokawa resembles a lumpy potato. Others see a celestial sea otter with a small "head" and larger "body" (sea otter photo and profile).
Hayabusa hovered over the oddly shaped asteroid taking images and readings before achieving a daring touchdown in an attempt to capture the first ever asteroid-surface samples.
Technical problems intervened, and it's unclear whether Hayabusa was able to secure a sample or whether engineers will be able to guide the spacecraft back to Earth some 180 million miles (290 million kilometers) away.
Despite these setbacks, the researchers say the spacecraft's rendezvous and landing were striking successes.
The mission sent back detailed images of Itokawa's surface, some from such a close vantage point that they include the spacecraft's shadow.
Hayabusa also made important measurements of the asteroid's mass and composition.
"The results obtained for Itokawa make a good benchmark for this type of asteroid," said Akira Fujiwara of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
"We could say that we have seen real images of the most common type of asteroid in the near-Earth region."
Fujiwara and colleagues published their mission results this week in a special edition of the journal Science.
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