Sample return missions offer opportunities to learn things about other objects in our Solar System (and beyond) that cannot be determined by observations using in situ spacecraft. This is largely because the returned samples can be studied in terrestrial laboratories where the analyses are not limited by the constraints - power, mass, time, precision, etc. - imposed by normal spacecraft operations. In addition, the returned samples serve as a scientific resource that is available far into the future; the study of the samples can continue long after the original spacecraft mission is finished. This means the samples can be continually revisited as both our scientific understanding and analytical techniques improve with time.
These advantages come with some additional difficulties, however. In particular, sample return missions must deal with the additional difficulties of proximity operations near the objects they are to sample, and they must be capable of successfully making a round trip between the Earth and the sampled object. Such missions therefore need to take special precautions against unique hazards and be designed to successfully complete relatively extended mission durations.
Despite these difficulties, several recent missions have managed to successfully complete sample returns from a number of Solar System objects. These include the Stardust mission (samples from Comet 81P/Wild 2), the Hayabusa mission (samples from asteroid 25143 Itokawa), and the Genesis mission (samples of solar wind). This paper will review the advantages and difficulties of sample return missions in general and will summarize some key findings of the recent Stardust and Hayabusa missions.