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A Falcon Lands on a Sea Otter -- in Space

A Japanese spacecraft has kept its rendezvous with an asteroid, following several failed attempts to land on the rock hurtling through space. Launched three years ago, the Hayabusa craft has now touched down on the surface of the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa three times.

After its second landing in November 2005, Hayabusa suffered a fuel leak that led to a loss in communication. Contact was re-established in January. The visits to Itokawa have shown that the asteroid isn't a solid rock, as scientists had believed. Rather, it's a bunch of rubble being held together by shared gravity.

The asteroid, with its oblong, rounded ends, had been compared to a potato. But upon closer inspection, Japanese scientists say Itokawa looks more like a sea otter. With the asteroid's composition ranging from large boulders to pits of gravel-like particles, researchers say they can make out what looks like a small "head" and larger "body" of a sea otter-like figure.

The recent animal comparisons are not the first in this mission. In Japanese, "Hayabusa" means "falcon."

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Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.