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The Chang'e 5 ascent stage has docked with its parent craft in orbit around the Moon. The only other docking operations further out than geostationary orbit that I can find are the eight Apollo lunar missions that included an LM. I believe those were all manual procedures so Chang'e 5 seems to have carried out the first automated docking outside GEO, and the first of any kind since Apollo December 17 in 1972.

Am I wrong? Have there been any other docking operations beyond GEO and if so, how many?

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    $\begingroup$ Apollo 8 didn't have a LEM, so no docking on that mission $\endgroup$ Dec 6 '20 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @EugeneStyer My mistake. Apollo 8 was CM only and Apollo 9 was the first full-stack flight but in LEO only, I'll edit the question. $\endgroup$ Dec 6 '20 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ Apollo 13 only performed the transposition and docking manouver, so I'm not sure it counts (maximum separation between the vehicles was not very far, and although they were on their way to the moon, they were still pretty close to earth. Technically speaking, all the Apollo dockings were performed in Earth orbit, as the moon orbits the earth. $\endgroup$
    – Innovine
    Dec 6 '20 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ WRT the modified question, the GEO graveyard orbit is outside GEO, and an automated probe up the exhaust has taken place there $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Dec 8 '20 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ Apollo 13 had a LEM but could not undock and redock because the oxygen .tank rupture within the SM. Only docking of CM to LM when separating from the third stage of the Saturn V. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Dec 8 '20 at 12:11
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I don't think there are any more beyond those you listed.

There would be three reasons to perform a docking:

  1. Demonstrate capability
  2. Bringing something back
  3. Assembling a larger structure

As no assembly as taken place beyond Earth orbit so far, 3) is ruled out.
2) I relatively simple to cover, since the only things worth the high cost of recovery is humans and surface samples. Humans have only travelled beyond Earth orbit during the Apollo programme, and surface samples have only been taken from low gravity environments (solar wind, asteroids), and the Moon. Other than Chang'e 5 and Apollo, the only other lunar sample returns were in the Soviet Luna programme, which did not use docking.

1) Is more tricky. Automated docking (in Earth orbit) was demonstrated as early as 1967 by Kosmos 186 and 188, so there's half a century of probe history cover. Nevertheless, going through list of space probes after that date, I can not find any examples (which would have been a major mission goal). There are also several news sources covering Chang'e 5 as "first automated docking in Lunar orbit".

On the more silly side, is Venera 14 popping off its lens cap and then analysing it with its compressibility tester arm a "docking"? :)

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  • $\begingroup$ I guess the Venera 14 example involves station-keeping by default :) $\endgroup$ Dec 6 '20 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ I suppose if hypothetically a Yutu rover returned to its lander and drove back up its ramp that might count, but it would be a bit if a stretch. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Dec 6 '20 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ Insight's arm bashing the mole? $\endgroup$ Dec 6 '20 at 17:02
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This answers the question as originally asked:
How many docking operations have taken place beyond Earth orbit?

Zero. All of the examples listed took place in Earth orbit. The moon orbits the Earth, so anything done in its vicinity is still occuring within Earths gravity well.

per Wikipedia, Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO)

require[s] an insertion into a heliocentric orbit as part of a journey that may require multiple orbital insertions

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  • $\begingroup$ Point taken, I'll reword my question. $\endgroup$ Dec 6 '20 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ You mean "All of them", since they were actually all in solar orbit? Gravity wells don't stop at any point. This is not what's meant with "Earth orbit" or "Moon orbit". $\endgroup$ Dec 8 '20 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ @SE-stopfiringthegoodguys the wording was "beyond Earth orbit" not "other than in Earth orbit" $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Dec 8 '20 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JCRM Which is perfectly clear. $\endgroup$ Dec 8 '20 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ Obviously it isn't @SE-stopfiringthegoodguys , as there at least eight people who disagree with you $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Dec 8 '20 at 11:50

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