The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) asteroid explorer Hayabusa, which landed on the asteroid Itokawa in November 2005, is now ready to return home.

Since February JAXA has been testing a new attitude-control method using the spacecraft's ion engine, after the spacecraft had control problems due to a fuel leak that occurred in November 2005. JAXA has used the spacecraft's xenon gas thrusters to overcome the errant attitude induced by the fuel leak.

Success in controlling its attitude led in late March to ion engine trials to enable the return journey. Their success now means fully fledged ion engine operations are scheduled to start in mid-April for the probe's return to Earth. It should arrive in 2010.

JAXA confirms the probe has successfully delivered its container of asteroid samples into its re-entry capsule, but because of the probe's difficulties the agency cannot confirm if it obtained asteroid samples when it briefly landed on Itokawa.

During its mission Hayabusa observed Itokawa's shape, geographical features, reflectance, mineral composition and gravity from an altitude of 3-20km (1.8-12 miles). JAXA scientists were also able to clarify the asteroid's structure as a "pile of rubble".

Source: Flight International