There have been four cases where spacecraft have returned matter from other bodies to the Earth. Apollo astronauts and Russian unmanned probes sent back samples from the Moon. The Genesis mission retrieved solar ejecta, and the Stardust spacecraft brought back samples of a comet. Now the fifth such program - the first NOT to be launched by one of the superpowers - is climaxing. Japan's Hayabusa (Falcon) capsule should land Sunday night in Australia with samples of an astroid after an odyssey that took seven years and covered 4 billion kilometers.
As one Australian on the project noted, "There's absolutely nothing like going to the source. Hayabusa has sampled an asteroid in situ and soon we will have in hand an actual asteroid. Any sample coming back ...will be a major scientific prize for us."