Exploring the Planets

Sample Return

Comprehensive studies of rocks and soils from other worlds require large equipment and teams of scientists. These requirements make it highly impractical—and years ago impossible—to perform these studies with robot explorers. Therefore, samples need to be brought back to Earth for analysis.

Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container

This box was used to carry rocks from the Moon back to Earth on the Apollo 12 mission. The container is designed to keep the samples sealed until opened in an inert atmosphere in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. Astronauts on the Apollo missions returned a total of 379 kilograms (834 pounds) of rock and soil from the Moon. A rock from the Moon is on display for visitors to touch at the Museum in Washington, DC.

Apollo 12 Lunar Sample Container on display in Exploring the Planets (gallery 207) at the Museum in Washington, DC.


Three Soviet spacecraft, Luna 16, 20, and 24 returned samples from the Moon in the 1970s. The Luna spacecraft obtained their samples by drilling into the lunar surface and extracting a hollow tube filled with soil.

Luna 16 Spacecraft

Luna 16.

Luna 20 Return Capsule

Luna 20 Return Capsule.

STARDUST: Sample of a Comet

The STARDUST mission was the first to return a sample from a comet. Launched in 1999, STARDUST encountered the comet Wild 2 in 2004. Samples of cometary particles were collected using a unique material called aerogel. The samples were stored in a reentry capsule and returned to Earth in 2006.

Stardust Return Capsule

After a 4.8 billion-kilometers (3 billion-mile) journey to rendezvous with a comet, the Stardust return capsule joined the national collection of flight icons in 2008. The capsule is displayed in Exploring the Planets at the Museum in Washington, DC.