The Genesis Rock, returned by the Apollo 15 lunar mission in 1971.
The sample return capsule from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission shortly after touching down in the desert in Utah

A sample-return mission is a spacecraft mission to collect and return samples from an extraterrestrial location to Earth for analysis. Sample-return missions may bring back merely atoms and molecules or a deposit of complex compounds such as loose material and rocks. These samples may be obtained in a number of ways, such as soil and rock excavation or a collector array used for capturing particles of solar wind or cometary debris. Nonetheless, concerns have been raised that the return of such samples to planet Earth may endanger Earth itself.[1]

To date, samples of Moon rock from Earth's Moon have been collected by robotic and crewed missions; the comet Wild 2 and the asteroids 25143 Itokawa, 162173 Ryugu, and 101955 Bennu have been visited by robotic spacecraft which returned samples to Earth; and samples of the solar wind have been returned by the robotic Genesis mission.

In addition to sample-return missions, samples from three identified non-terrestrial bodies have been collected by other means: samples from the Moon in the form of Lunar meteorites, samples from Mars in the form of Martian meteorites, and samples from Vesta in the form of HED meteorites.

On 22 November 2023, NASA was reported to have cut back on the Mars sample-return mission due to a possible shortage of funds.[2]

Scientific use

A meteorite thought to be from Mars

Samples available on Earth can be analyzed in laboratories, so we can further our understanding and knowledge as part of the discovery and exploration of the Solar System. Until now, many important scientific discoveries about the Solar System were made remotely with telescopes, and some Solar System bodies were visited by orbiting or even landing spacecraft with instruments capable of remote sensing or sample analysis. While such an investigation of the Solar System is technically easier than a sample-return mission, the scientific tools available on Earth to study such samples are far more advanced and diverse than those that can go on spacecraft. Further, analysis of samples on Earth allows follow up of any findings with different tools, including tools that can tell intrinsic extraterrestrial material from terrestrial contamination,[3] and those that have yet to be developed; in contrast, a spacecraft can carry only a limited set of analytic tools, and these have to be chosen and built long before launch.

Samples analyzed on Earth can be matched against findings of remote sensing for more insight into the processes that formed the Solar System. This was done, for example, with findings by the Dawn spacecraft, which visited the asteroid Vesta from 2011 to 2012 for imaging, and samples from HED meteorites (collected on Earth until then), which were compared to data gathered by Dawn.[4] These meteorites could then be identified as material ejected from the large impact crater Rheasilvia on Vesta. This allowed deducing the composition of the crust, mantle and core of Vesta. Similarly, some differences in the composition of asteroids (and, to a lesser extent, different compositions of comets) can be discerned by imaging alone. However, for a more precise inventory of the material on these different bodies, more samples will be collected and returned in the future, to match their compositions with the data gathered through telescopes and astronomical spectroscopy.

One further focus of such investigation—besides the basic composition and geologic history of the various Solar System bodies—is the presence of the building blocks of life on comets, asteroids, Mars or the moons of the gas giants. Several sample-return missions to asteroids and comets are currently in the works. More samples from asteroids and comets will help determine whether life formed in space and was carried to Earth by meteorites. Another question under investigation is whether extraterrestrial life formed on other Solar System bodies like Mars or on the moons of the gas giants, and whether life might even exist there. The result of NASA's last "Decadal Survey" was to prioritize a Mars sample-return mission, as Mars has a special importance: it is comparatively "nearby", might have harbored life in the past, and might even continue to sustain life. Jupiter's moon Europa is another important focus in the search for life in the Solar System. However, due to the distance and other constraints, Europa might not be the target of a sample-return mission in the foreseeable future.

Planetary protection

Further information: Planetary protection and Extraterrestrial sample curation

Planetary protection aims to prevent biological contamination of both the target celestial body and the Earth in the case of sample-return missions. A sample return from Mars or other location with the potential to host life is a category V mission under COSPAR, which directs to the containment of any unsterilized sample returned to Earth. This is because it is unknown what the effects such hypothetical life would be on humans or the biosphere of Earth.[5] For this reason, Carl Sagan and Joshua Lederberg argued in the 1970s that we should do sample-return missions classified as category V missions with extreme caution, and later studies by the NRC and ESF agreed.[5][6][7][8][9]

Sample-return missions

First missions

Apollo 11 was the first mission to return extraterrestrial samples.
Lunar sample 60016 on display at Space Center Houston Lunar Samples Vault, at NASA's Johnson Space Center

In July 1969, Apollo 11 achieved the first successful sample return from another Solar System body when it returned 22 kilograms (49 lb) of Lunar surface material. This was followed by 34 kilograms (75 lb) of material and Surveyor 3 parts from Apollo 12, 42.8 kilograms (94 lb) of material from Apollo 14, 76.7 kilograms (169 lb) of material from Apollo 15, 94.3 kilograms (208 lb) of material from Apollo 16, and 110.4 kilograms (243 lb) of material from Apollo 17.[citation needed] The Apollo program as a whole returned over 382 kg (842 lb) of lunar rocks and regolith, including lunar soil, to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston.[10][11][12] Today, 75% of the samples are stored at the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility built in 1979.[13]

In 1970, the robotic Soviet mission Luna 16 returned 101 grams (3.6 oz) of lunar soil, followed by Luna 20's return of 55 grams (1.9 oz) in 1974, and Luna 24's return of 170 grams (6.0 oz) in 1976. Although they recovered far less than the Apollo missions, they did this fully automatically. Apart from these three successes, other attempts under the Luna programme failed. The first two missions were intended to compete with Apollo 11 and were undertaken shortly before it in June and July 1969. Luna E-8-5 No. 402 failed at start, and Luna 15 crashed on the Moon. Later, other sample-return missions failed: Kosmos 300 and Kosmos 305 in 1969, Luna E-8-5 No. 405 in 1970, Luna E-8-5M No. 412 in 1975 had unsuccessful launches, and Luna 18 in 1971 and Luna 23 in 1974 had unsuccessful landings on the Moon.[14]

In 1970, the Soviet Union planned for a 1975 first Mars sample-return mission in the Mars 5NM project. This mission was planned to use an N1 rocket, but this rocket never flew successfully and the mission evolved into the Mars 5M project, which would use a double launch with the smaller Proton rocket and an assembly at a Salyut space station. This Mars 5M mission was planned for 1979, but was canceled in 1977 due to technical problems and complexity.[15]


The Orbital Debris Collection (ODC) experiment deployed on the Mir space station for 18 months in 1996–97 used aerogel to capture particles from low Earth orbit, including both interplanetary dust and man-made particles.[16]


An artist's rendering of Genesis collecting solar wind.

The next mission to return extraterrestrial samples was the Genesis mission, which returned solar wind samples to Earth from beyond Earth orbit in 2004. Unfortunately, the Genesis capsule failed to open its parachute while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere and crash-landed in the Utah desert. There were fears of severe contamination or even total mission loss, but scientists managed to save many of the samples. They were the first to be collected from beyond lunar orbit. Genesis used a collector array made of wafers of ultra-pure silicon, gold, sapphire, and diamond. Each different wafer was used to collect a different part of the solar wind.[17]

Sample-return capsule from the Stardust mission

Genesis was followed by NASA's Stardust spacecraft, which returned comet samples to Earth on January 15, 2006. It safely passed by Comet Wild 2 and collected dust samples from the comet's coma while imaging the comet's nucleus. Stardust used a collector array made of low-density aerogel (99% of which is space), which has about 1/1000 of the density of glass. This enables the collection of cometary particles without damaging them due to high impact velocities. Particle collisions with even slightly porous solid collectors would result in the destruction of those particles and damage to the collection apparatus. During the cruise, the array collected at least seven interstellar dust particles.[18]

2010s and 2020s

In June 2010 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa probe returned asteroid samples to Earth after a rendezvous with (and a landing on) S-type asteroid 25143 Itokawa. In November 2010, scientists at the agency confirmed that, despite failure of the sampling device, the probe retrieved micrograms of dust from the asteroid, the first brought back to Earth in pristine condition.[19]

The Russian Fobos-Grunt was a failed sample-return mission designed to return samples from Phobos, one of the moons of Mars. It was launched on November 8, 2011, but failed to leave Earth orbit and crashed after several weeks into the southern Pacific Ocean.[20][21]

OSIRIS-REx collecting a sample from asteroid 101955 Bennu
(Full-sized image)

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the improved Hayabusa2 space probe on December 3, 2014. Hayabusa2 arrived at the target near-Earth C-type asteroid 162173 Ryugu (previously designated 1999 JU3) on 27 June 2018.[22] It surveyed the asteroid for a year and a half and took samples. It left the asteroid in November 2019[23][24] and returned to Earth on December 6, 2020.[25]

The OSIRIS-REx mission was launched in September 2016 on a mission to return samples from the asteroid 101955 Bennu.[26][27] The samples are expected to enable scientists to learn more about the time before the birth of the Solar System, initial stages of planet formation, and the source of organic compounds that led to the formation of life.[28] It reached the proximity of Bennu on 3 December 2018,[29] where it began analyzing its surface for a target sample area over the next several months. It collected its sample on 20 October 2020,[30][31] and landed back on Earth again on 24 September 2023, making Osiris Rex the fifth successful sample return mission for mankind, in its return of samples from an extra-terrestrial body.[32][33][34][35] Shortly after the sample container was retrieved and transferred to an "airtight chamber at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas", the lid on the container was opened. Scientists commented that they "found black dust and debris on the avionics deck of the OSIRIS-REx science canister" on the initial opening. Later study was planned. On 11 October 2023, the recovered capsule was opened to reveal a "first look" at the asteroid sample contents.[36][37] On 13 December 2023, further studies of the returned sample were reported and revealed organic molecules as well as unknown materials which require more study to have a better idea of their composition and makeup.[38][39] On 13 January 2024, NASA reported finally fully opening, after three months of trying, the recovered container with samples from the Bennu asteroid.[40][41] The total weight of the recovered material weighed 121.6 g (4.29 oz), over twice the mission's goal.[42]

Lunar soil sample collected by China's Chang'e 5 mission displayed at Airshow China 2021.
Lunar soil sample collected by China's Chang'e 5 mission displayed at Airshow China 2021.

China launched the Chang'e 5 lunar sample return mission on November 23, 2020, which returned to Earth with 2 kilograms of lunar soil on December 16, 2020.[43] It was first lunar sample return in over 40 years.[44]

Future missions

JAXA is developing the MMX mission, a sample-return mission to Phobos that will be launched in 2026.[45] MMX will study both moons of Mars, but the landing and the sample collection will be on Phobos. This selection was made because of the two moons, Phobos's orbit is closer to Mars and its surface may have particles blasted from Mars. Thus the sample may contain material originating on Mars itself.[46] A propulsion module carrying the sample is expected to return to Earth in 2031.[45]

China plans to launch the Chang'e 6 lunar sample return mission in 2024. China is also planning a mission called Tianwen-2 to return samples from 469219 Kamoʻoalewa which is planned to launch in 2025.[47] China plans for a Mars sample return mission by 2030.[48][49] Also, the Chinese Space Agency is designing a sample-retrieval mission from Ceres that would take place during the 2020s.[50]

NASA and ESA have long planned a Mars Sample-Return Mission.[51] The Perseverance rover, deployed in 2020, is collecting drill core samples and stashing them on the Mars surface.[52] As of September 2023, it has gathered one atmospheric sample and 8 igneous rock sample, 11 sedimentary rock samples and a pair of regolith samples.[53] A joint NASA-ESA mission to return them is planned for the early thirties, consisting of a lander to retrieve the samples and raise them into orbit, and an orbiter to return them to Earth.[54] In January 2024, a proposed NASA plan had been challenged due to budget and scheduling considerations, and a newer overhaul plan undertaken.[55]

Comet sample-return missions also continue to be a NASA priority. Comet Surface Sample Return was one of the six themes for proposals for NASA's fourth New Frontiers mission in 2017.[56]

Russia has plans for Luna-Glob missions to return samples from the Moon by 2027 and Mars-Grunt to return samples from Mars in the late 2020s.[citation needed]

Methods of sample return

Animation of TAGSAM arm moving

Sample-return methods include, but are not restricted to the following:

A Genesis collector array consisting of a grid of ultra-pure wafers of silicon, gold, sapphire, and diamond

Collector array

A collector array may be used to collect millions or billions of atoms, molecules, and fine particulates by using wafers made of different elements. The molecular structure of these wafers allows the collection of various sizes of particles. Collector arrays, such as those flown on Genesis, are ultra-pure in order to ensure maximal collection efficiency, durability, and analytical distinguishability.

Collector arrays are useful for collecting tiny, fast-moving atoms such as those expelled by the Sun through the solar wind, but can also be used for collection of larger particles such as those found in the coma of a comet. The NASA spacecraft known as Stardust implemented this technique. However, due to the high speeds and size of the particles that make up the coma and the area nearby, a dense solid-state collector array was not viable. As a result, another means for collecting samples had to be designed to preserve the safety of the spacecraft and the samples themselves.


A particle captured in aerogel

Aerogel is a silica-based porous solid with a sponge-like structure, 99.8% of whose volume is empty space. Aerogel has about 1/1000 of the density of glass. An aerogel was used in the Stardust spacecraft because the dust particles the spacecraft was to collect would have an impact speed of about 6 km/s. A collision with a dense solid at that speed could alter their chemical composition or vaporize them completely.[57]

Since the aerogel is mostly transparent, and the particles leave a carrot-shaped path once they penetrate the surface, scientists can easily find and retrieve them. Since its pores are on the nanometer scale, particles, even ones smaller than a grain of sand, do not merely pass through the aerogel completely. Instead, they slow to a stop and then are embedded within it. The Stardust spacecraft has a tennis-racket-shaped collector with aerogel fitted to it. The collector is retracted into its capsule for safe storage and delivery back to Earth. Aerogel is quite strong and easily survives both launching and space environments.[57]

Robotic excavation and return

Some of the riskiest and most difficult types of sample-return missions are those that require landing on an extraterrestrial body such as an asteroid, moon, or planet. It takes a great deal of time, money, and technical ability to even initiate such plans. It is a difficult feat that requires that everything from launch to landing to retrieval and launch back to Earth is planned out with high precision and accuracy.

This type of sample return, although having the most risks, is the most rewarding for planetary science. Furthermore, such missions carry a great deal of public outreach potential, which is an important attribute for space exploration when it comes to public support. The only successful robotic sample-return missions of this type have been the Soviet Luna landers and Chinese Chang'e 5.[citation needed]

List of missions

Colour key:

  – Mission completed successfully (or partially successfully)
  – Mission en route, in progress, or planned (including mission extensions)

Crewed missions

Launch date Operator Name Sample origin Samples returned Recovery date Mission result
16 July 1969  United States Apollo 11 Moon 22 kilograms (49 lb) 24 July 1969 Successful
14 November 1969 United States United States Apollo 12 Moon 34 kilograms (75 lb) and Surveyor 3 parts[note 1][58] 24 November 1969 Successful
11 April 1970 United States United States Apollo 13 Moon 17 April 1970 Failed
31 January 1971 United States United States Apollo 14 Moon 43 kilograms (95 lb) 9 February 1971 Successful
26 July 1971 United States United States Apollo 15 Moon 77 kilograms (170 lb) 7 August 1971 Successful
16 April 1972 United States United States Apollo 16 Moon 95 kilograms (209 lb) 27 April 1972 Successful
7 December 1972 United States United States Apollo 17 Moon 111 kilograms (245 lb) 19 December 1972 Successful
22 March 1996 Russia Russia Earth-Orbital Debris Collection Low Earth orbit Particles 6 October 1997 Successful[59]
14 April 2015 Japan Japan Tanpopo mission Low Earth orbit Particles February 2018[60] Successful

Robotic missions

Launch date Operator Name Sample origin Samples returned Recovery date Mission result
14 June 1969  Soviet Union Luna E-8-5 No. 402 Moon Failure
13 July 1969 Soviet Union Soviet Union Luna 15 Moon Failure
23 September 1969 Soviet Union Soviet Union Kosmos 300 Moon Failure
22 October 1969 Soviet Union Soviet Union Kosmos 305 Moon Failure
6 February 1970[14] Soviet Union Soviet Union Luna E-8-5 No. 405 Moon Failure
12 September 1970 Soviet Union Soviet Union Luna 16 Moon 101 grams (3.6 oz) 24 September 1970 Success
2 September 1971 Soviet Union Soviet Union Luna 18 Moon Failure
14 February 1972 Soviet Union Soviet Union Luna 20 Moon 55 grams (1.9 oz) 25 February 1972 Success
2 November 1974 Soviet Union Soviet Union Luna 23 Moon Failure
16 October 1975 Soviet Union Soviet Union Luna E-8-5M No. 412 Moon Failure
9 August 1976 Soviet Union Soviet Union Luna 24 Moon 170 grams (6.0 oz) 22 August 1976 Success
7 February 1999 United States United States Stardust 81P/Wild Particles, weighing approx 1 gram (0.035 oz) 15 January 2006 Success
8 August 2001 United States United States Genesis Solar wind Particles 9 September 2004 Success (partial)
9 May 2003  Japan Hayabusa 25143 Itokawa Particles, weighing less than 1 gram (0.035 oz) 13 June 2010 Success (partial)
8 November 2011  Russia Fobos-Grunt Phobos Failure
3 December 2014 Japan Japan Hayabusa2 162173 Ryugu 5.4 grams (0.19 oz)[61] (including gas samples) 6 December 2020 Success
8 September 2016 United States United States OSIRIS-REx 101955 Bennu ~121.6 g (4.29 oz)[37][62] 24 September 2023 Success
23 November 2020  China Chang'e 5 Moon 1,731 grams (61.1 oz) 16 December 2020 Success
2024 China China Chang'e 6 Moon 2024 Ongoing
2025  China Tianwen-2 469219 Kamoʻoalewa 2025 Planned[63]
2026 Japan Japan MMX Phobos 2031 Planned
2028 United States United States /
Europe European Space Agency
NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return Mars 500 grams (18 oz)
[note 2][64]
2033 Ongoing[note 3]
2028  India Chandrayaan-4 Moon 2028 Planned
2028  China Tianwen-3 Mars 2031 Planned[65]

See also


  1. ^ The Apollo 12 astronauts removed several components from Surveyor 3, including the television camera, and returned them to Earth, where they are treated as lunar samples by NASA. It returned about 10 kilograms (22 lb) of the Surveyor 3's original landing mass of 302 kilograms (666 lb) to Earth to study the effects of long term exposure. Surveyor 3 is the only probe visited by humans on another world.
  2. ^ The Perseverance rover is gathering samples for eventual return to Earth. As of September 2023, it has gathered one atmospheric sample and 8 igneous rock sample, 11 sedimentary rock samples and a pair of regolith samples.[53]
  3. ^ NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle and the ESA's Earth Return Orbiter are still in the planning stages.


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