Russia, US agree to explore Mars together
MOSCOW (AFP) May 05, 2003
Russia and the United States have agreed to launch a joint programme of Mars exploration, officials said here Monday after talks between the heads of the US and Russian space agencies.

The two countries "have agreed to begin joint exploration of Mars and carry out joint unmanned interplanetary station flight programmes," Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for Russia's Rosaviakosmos space agency, told the Interfax news agency.

"In addition, it was decided that Russia can take part in US space tenders," Gorbunov added.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe held talks with his Russian counterpart Yuri Koptev to discuss cooperation including over the 16-nation International Space Station (ISS).

The future of the ISS will be addressed by the heads of the aerospace agencies participating in the project at a meeting in September, the two men agreed, the Russian space spokesman told ITAR-TASS.

Russia did not bring up the issue of additional US financing of the Russian space industry, he said.

The United States is relying on Russia to transport crew to and from the ISS orbiting space station because the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has suspended flights by its space shuttles following the Columbia disaster on February 1.

The grounding of the US shuttle fleet left Russia's underfunded space programme the only one capable of making manned missions to the ISS.

Russia has budgeted extra funds for the space programme over the next six months but next year it has said it cannot raise the money to construct the necessary additional Progress cargo ships and manned Soyuz craft.

NASA is refusing to finance construction of Russian spaceships to offset the freeze on US space shuttles because of a 2000 US law aimed at retaliating against Russia for allegedly transferring nuclear technology to Iran.

The United States and Russia are the biggest partners in the ISS venture.

Despite the deadlock, O'Keefe and Koptev discussed a project for a US-Russian space probe, said a top Russian space official who is working on the launch of a European space probe due to be sent up on June 2 on a Russian rocket.

"Russian and US specialists began working on the Martian project 10 years ago," Vasily Moroz from the Russian Space Research Institute told the ITAR-TASS news agency.

The two sides had considered the possibility of sending a US space probe equipped with a Russian descent module and launched with a Russian booster rocket, but financial issues had stalled work on the project, he said.

In May 2001 the Russian Space Agency announced a tender for designs for a manned flight to Mars, with experts saying they expected the final plans to be announced in 2005.

Last year Russian space experts urged their US and European colleagues to join them in launching a manned flight to Mars by 2014.

The US space agency NASA is currently engaged in small-scale studies on manned flight to Mars but has no plans for a mission.

Information obtained from unmanned flights to Mars has revealed that the planet has a very thin atmosphere and, although there is no liquid water, scientists believe it is possible the climate could sustain life in the form of micro-organisms.