Past missions

The following missions to celestial bodies have paved the way for the world's space agencies current deep-space missions.

Giotto (ESA)

Artist's impression of Giotto and Comet Halley

ESA's first deep-space mission, Giotto, passed within 600 km of the nucleus of Comet Halley on 13 March 1986. Although Giotto was damaged during the flyby, most of its instruments remained operational. Its images showed for the first time the shape of a comet nucleus and found the first evidence of organic material in a comet. The mission was extended to allow an unprecedented encounter with a second comet, Grigg-Skjellerup.

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Deep Impact (NASA)

Fly-by spacecraft with impactor
Artist's impression of fly-by spacecraft with impactor

Deep Impact is a NASA mission launched on January 2005. On the 4th of July 2005, the spacecraft arrived and performed a flyby of Comet Tempel 1, impacting this large comet with a 370-kg mass. On impact, a crater was produced, while ice and dust debris were ejected from the crater revealing fresh material beneath.

The crater and its corresponding ejecta curtain (the material thrown out of the forming crater) were observed in detail by the flyby spacecraft for a short period of about 13 minutes as the comet nucleus approached. Outstanding images from cameras and other instruments were sent to Earth covering the approach, the impact and its aftermath.

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NEAR-Shoemaker (NASA)

NEAR Shoemaker

Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) was launched on 1996 by NASA. The spacecraft made successful flybys of asteroid 243 Mathilde on 1997 and asteroid 433 Eros on 1998. The spacecraft then returned to asteroid Eros and spent almost a year in orbit around it. Finally, on February 2001, the NEAR spacecraft touched down on asteroid Eros, after transmitting 69 close-up images of the surface during its final descent. The Near Shoemaker sent back to Earth a vast amount of image and spectral data on the asteroid’s surface structure and composition, showing that Eros is heavily cratered. Furthermore, the surface of Eros shows linear markings and grooves which indicate that it may be internally fractured, although it appears to be a consolidated body rather than a rubble pile.

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Deep Space 1 (NASA)

DS1 Spacecraft

NASA's Deep Space 1 made a successful fly-by of comet Borrelly in September 2001, in an extremely successful extended mission, returning the best images and other science data ever from a comet. During its fully successful hyperextended mission, it conducted further technology tests. The spacecraft was retired on December 18, 2001.

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Galileo (NASA)

Galileo encounter with Io

Galileo is a NASA mission launched on 1989 that imaged two asteroids while en route to Jupiter. In 1991, during its first passage in the asteroid belt, Galileo imaged the main-belt asteroid (951) Gaspra. In 1993, during its second cruise, Galileo discovered a miniature "moon" orbiting the asteroid (243) Ida. This tiny body was named Dactyl. In 1994, Galileo was also perfectly positioned to watch the fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter. Earth-based telescopes had to wait to see the impact sites as they rotated into view.

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Hayabusa (Japan)

JAXA's Hayabusa spacecraft

Japan has launched in 2003 a particularly ambitious rendezvous mission to a minor body called Hayabusa (it was originally called MUSES-C). It reached the Near-Earth Asteroid (25413) Itokawa in October 2005 and then spent 5 months studying the asteroid. In November 2005 Hayabusa set down briefly to gather a few grams of surface material. Unfortunately a fuel leak has caused unexpected disturbing torque on the spacecraft and loss of ground contact. The project team has now decided to design a new return trajectory that should bring a re-entry capsule containing the surface samples back to Earth in June of 2010.

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Stardust (NASA)


Stardust is a NASA mission launched on 1999 that made a fly-by of comet Wild 2 in January 2004, and captured thousands of particles in its aerogel collector. It successfully returned on Earth on 15 January 2006 when a reentry capsule was parachuted to the Earth's surface.

Stardust is the first U.S. space mission dedicated solely to the exploration of a comet, and the first robotic mission designed to return extraterrestrial material from outside the orbit of the Moon.

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Stardust-NExT (NASA)

Stardust-NExT Spacecraft Approaching Comet Tempel 1

After accomplishing the Stardust mission, the spacecraft was set to hibernation mode. During this time also the Deep Impact mission was performed, leaving a crater on Temple-1 that was for the Deep Impact spacecraft not visible due to the ejecta cloud.

Analyzing and imaging the impact crater of Deep Impact was the mission objective of Stardust NExT. This mission was successfully finished in Feb. 2011.

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ISEE-3, the third spacecraft of the NASA ISEE missions, was launched in 1978 and, after having completed its original mission to Sun in 1982, it was retargeted to pass through Comet Giacobini-Zinner's tail on September 1985, becoming ICE. The mission also observed Halley's Comet in March 1986, being the first spacecraft to directly investigate two comets. In 1991, an extended ICE mission was approved by NASA and the spacecraft is scheduled to return to the vicinity of the Earth-moon system in 2014.


Suisei (the Japanese name meaning `Comet') was launched on March 18, 1985, into heliocentric orbit to fly by Comet P/Halley. The spacecraft was identical to its test spacecraft Sakigake apart from its scientific payload. Both probes were operated by Japan's Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science.


VEGA is an international project managed by the russian Space Research Institute (IKI), which combined the study of Venus and Halley's comet. The two VEGA spacecrafts, VEGA-1 and VEGA-2, have been launched on December 15th and 21st, 1984, respectively. After flying by Venus on June 1985, and delivering two balloons and 2 landers, the two spacecrafts were headed to rendezvous with Halley's comet. They both were part of the international fleet that studied the comet on 1986 and their observations made were used to target Giotto spacecraft.

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Last update: 26 February 2015

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