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Inspired by this question, I've been wondering how far a probe has been from Earth, conducted its mission, then subsequently returned to Earth.

I'm aware of the Hayabusa and Stardust missions, but I've not found any information on how far away they travelled, either at maximum distance or during the encounters with Itokawa or the various asteroids and comets of the Stardust mission. Which of these went further away from Earth, and was either of them the furthest ever, or is there another mission I've not found?

I'm mainly interested in physical separation from Earth, though distance measured by differences in orbital distance from the Sun would also be interesting.

By "returned to Earth" I mean re-entering the atmosphere, either purposefully or accidentally / fatally, not for the many missions that have used Earth for a gravity assist.

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  • $\begingroup$ Returned to Earth, or is a flyby sufficient? $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Dec 10, 2015 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ @PearsonArtPhoto TildalWave already asked me the same thing and helped clarify my question - see the last sentence :) $\endgroup$ Dec 11, 2015 at 8:35
  • $\begingroup$ The Fobos-Grunt mission intended to do a sample return from Phobos. It failed though. $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2015 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ For those who are wondering, the OSIRIS-Rex mission that recently returned to Earth was about 2.22 AU away from Earth when it collected its sample in October 2020 (according to this site.) $\endgroup$ Sep 27, 2023 at 14:38

2 Answers 2

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The best I could find was the Stardust mission, which went a little over ~2.5-3.0 AU away from Earth before returning (it landed so dust from comet Wild 2 could be analyzed).

There are more examples of previous and potential future missions on this Wikipedia page as well.

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There are 5 deep-space sample collection missions that would qualify. I've included these and their max distance from Earth below, so far as I can tell. Some we have more specific numbers than others.

  • Genesis- 0.005 AU
  • Hayabusa- 2 AU
  • Hayabusa 2- ~2 AU
  • Stardust- 3.594 AU
  • OSIRIS-REx- About 2.2 AU

So Stardust, the sample return mission of a comet, is the clear winner, without looking for a more precise answer.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are these line-of-sight distances, or orbits? 'cause a probe in same orbit as Earth but lagging half a year behind will be 2AU away on the other side of the Sun, which is not as impressive as something that returns from the asteroid belt. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Sep 27, 2023 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ These are line-of-sight. Most sample return missions have been to asteroids in a near-Earth orbit, hence the more boring nature. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Sep 28, 2023 at 16:58

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