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.

  • $\begingroup$ Returned to Earth, or is a flyby sufficient? $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Dec 10 '15 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ @PearsonArtPhoto TildalWave already asked me the same thing and helped clarify my question - see the last sentence :) $\endgroup$ – James Thorpe Dec 11 '15 at 8:35
  • $\begingroup$ The Fobos-Grunt mission intended to do a sample return from Phobos. It failed though. $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Dec 13 '15 at 8:12

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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