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Japan invites the masses to land on asteroid

Drawing of the Muses-C spacecraft
Drawing of the Muses-C spacecraft  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Want to land on an asteroid with a legion of fellow explorers? You can, thanks to a Japanese space mission that launches later this year. But the achievement will be in name only.

The Muses-C spacecraft, the first designed to visit a space rock and return to Earth with geological samples, is slated to depart in November or December.

The Planetary Society of Japan hopes that at least a million names from all over the world will go along for the ride. The group of space enthusiasts recently kicked off a campaign to collect names and will continue to do so until July 6.

"The mission to return a sample of the asteroid to Earth is a bold and scientifically valuable undertaking," said Louis

Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, in a statement this week. The Pasadena, California-based group maintains close ties with the Planetary Society of Japan.

The names will be etched on an aluminum foil sheet inside a softball-sized ball that will accompany the probe. The sphere, a target marker, will help the robot ship land when it reaches asteroid 1998 SF36 in 2005.

It will be dropped onto the asteroid, where it will serve as a navigation landmark for the descending craft, according to the Planetary Society.

Asteroid 1998 SF36 orbits the sun about once every 1.5 years and is about 2,300-by-1,000 feet (700-by-300 meters). It is on average about 84 million miles (134 million km) from Earth, but can swing as close as 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km) or closer, according to scientists.

The space rock is considerably smaller than the asteroid Eros, which a NASA probe touched down on in February 2001. The NEAR-Shoemaker had nearly exhausted its power supply after orbiting and studying the Manhattan-sized space rock for a year.

Mission engineers guided the craft to the impromptu landing to squeeze as much scientific data from the mission as possible.

But Muses-C is designed to return home. After scooping up several asteroid samples, it should head back in our direction and send its cargo to Earth in a capsule that parachutes down to Australia in 2007.

The Planetary Society of Japan has more details about the asteroid campaign at the following English-language site:


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