Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft is on track to attempt a sampling of asteroid Itokawa Nov. 19.

In a rescheduled practice run Nov. 9, the spacecraft approached within 70 meters of the asteroid during a descent test that verified the probe’s guidance and navigation functions.

Engineers handling the Hayabusa spacecraft have clarified the issues that led to the cancellation of a Nov. 4 landing rehearsal. An onboard navigation computer detected anomalous information during the practice run. The problem resulted in an abort command being transmitted to the probe by Earth controllers, thereby stopping the rehearsal. Subsequently, the spacecraft fired its chemical engines and started its ascent, backing away from the asteroid.

Mission officials are now prepared to carry out a landing at a site on the asteroid that they have dubbed the “Muses Sea” site. The collection of samples is scheduled to take place on both Nov. 19 and following another touchdown on the asteroid scheduled for Nov. 25, according to the Web site of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science , a space science research division arm of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency .

Hayabusa is now ready for its historic attempt to gather and return asteroid specimens to Earth.

Imagery taken by Hayabusa has been used to target the craft to a touchdown location on asteroid Itokawa. One newly released image shows the shadow of the spacecraft cast upon the asteroid’s surface.

Japan’s Hayabusa roared off into space from Japan’s Kagoshima Space Center May 9, 2003. The spacecraft arrived at its asteroid target on Sept. 12.

Hayabusa is equipped to collect samples of the asteroid for return to Earth. In addition, a tiny robot will hop about the surface of Itokawa and relay pictures from the asteroid’s surface.

Plans call for the probe’s return capsule carrying asteroid specimens to return to Earth in June 2007, landing by parachute in a remote desert spot in Woomera, Australia.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...