Sagamihara: Japan is counting down to the homecoming of a space hero next week: not an astronaut but a battered machine limping back from a seven-year odyssey to a distant space rock.
It is hoped the small probe Hayabusa ("Falcon") may have beaten bigger US and European projects to become the first spacecraft to bring home raw material from an asteroid, part of the primeval rubble left over from the making of the solar system.
Hayabusa, which cost 12.7 billion yen (138 million dollars) to develop, is approaching the end of a five-billion-kilometre (three-billion-mile) trek with broken engines, failed posture-adjusting devices and disfunctional batteries.
The spacecraft is due to release a canister expected to contain asteroid dust as it approaches Earth, aiming to land it at the Woomera Test Range in the Australian outback on June 13 -- if all goes well.
Hayabusa itself will be incinerated as it smashes into the atmosphere, prompting devout fans to declare that the falcon will be reborn as a "Phoenix" -- a mythical firebird.
The journey has captured the public imagination, with a computer-graphics movie "Hayabusa back to the Earth" drawing some 150,000 people at planetariums across the nation and proposals that the spacecraft be given a National Honour Award.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), on a special website (http://hayabusa.jaxa.jp/), has received nearly 1,000 messages treating the probe as a human boy and cheering him on in the lonely, difficult journey.
"What`s special to Hayabusa is it has enthusiastic fans. I believe ordinary people love it because it tried what is unprecedented," JAXA associate professor Makoto Yoshikawa, said.
The car-size probe with solar paddles has already become the world`s first spacecraft to land on and lift off a celestial body other than the moon after it made a rendezvous with the potato-shaped asteroid Itokawa.
Launched on May 9 2003, Hayabusa approached the 540-metre-wide (1,782-foot) asteroid in September 2005.
The probe made a pinpoint landing at a smooth spot on the bumpy, revolving asteroid, which is 300 million kilometres away from Earth -- about twice as far as the sun.
Hayabusa left on Itokawa a metal ball wrapped in a thin plastic film that bears the names of 880,000 people from 149 countries, among them US filmmaker Steven Spielberg and British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. All had responded to JAXA`s public invitation to be listed.
The moon and planets like Mars pull a spacecraft in once it gets close to them, but Hayabusa needed to land in near zero gravity.
The task was difficult, Yoshikawa said. "It was like putting up a needle on the top of Mount Fuji and firing a grain of sand through its hole," he said in Sagamihara, west of Tokyo, where ground control is based.
Scientists expect Hayabusa managed to collect dust that floated up when the probe bounced on Itokawa, although data show the probe failed to fire a bullet as planned to crush the surface or raise a curl of sand.
They hope raw samples, unlike scorched remains such as meteorites, will give them clues on how the solar system has developed.
The United States and Europe have both launched big projects to analyse primitive phenomena.