Last Sunday, Opportunity was the second American Mars rover to land on Mars in the past few weeks. The Mars rover Spirit reached the surface of the Red Planet on January 3. Valuable information is also being sent back from a near-Martian orbit by the European Mars Express spacecraft.
Scientists in Russia-the first country to send a man to outer space-are closely watching these fascinating scientific events.
According to many estimates, despite the huge financial difficulties of the recent decade, Russian space science is excellent.
In 1930, the well-known Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky wrote, "Man's conquest of the Moon and the planets is one of the tasks of the near future". However, Vernadsky was incorrect in assessment of when this task would be fulfilled.
Direct, or close-range investigations of the planets and the Moon began in the Soviet Union in the late 50s and in the United States in the 60s. The USSR's main achievement of that period was a unique automatic operation to bring back a sample of lunar soil. The U.S. responded by landing a man on the Moon. None of these achievements has been repeated.
In 1962, the Soviet Mars-1 became the first probe to reach Mars. In 1970 and 1971 a Soviet spacecraft made first soft landings on Venus and Mars respectively.
For many years, only two main space powers carried out space exploration projects. Recently, countries in Europe and Asia have also entered this field.
Erik Galimov, director of the Moscow Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, said the aims of these ambitious and costly projects are to learn the laws of formation and evolution of our planet, discover the origins of life in the solar system, and explore the Moon as a source of materials and an advance post for studying the far reaches of outer space.
In spite of the fact that Russian space programmes are becoming more modest, Russia will not abandon planetary and lunar studies. Russian scientists are now focusing on inexpensive projects with a well-formulated objective whose attainment will yield the maximum scientific result.
Galimov, an Academician, described these plans at a Presidium meeting of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The plans include actively studying the Moon, a specific project to bring planetary matter back to Earth, and developing a next generation spacecraft that uses inexpensive carrier rockets.
The lack of finance dictated that the first phase of studies concentrate on the Phobos-Grunt project, which promises many interesting findings.
Phobos is one of the two Martian moons and the subject of much controversy: is its substance related to that of Mars or is it a "captured foreign" object that flew past the Red Planet? Galimov said that the Earth and the Moon "share a common source of cosmic matter".
By studying the substance of Phobos, it will also be possible to answer other questions concerning the whole Solar system, including the origin of life in it.
The Phobos-Grunt programme presupposes delivery of samples from the Martian moon to Earth because many investigations are possible only in sophisticated laboratory conditions. Galimov's institute is specialising in this field.
A core of soil, 100 cm long and about 100 g, will be delivered to Earth from Phobos. Special mechanical arms will collect bits of soil from the surface of the Martian moon as well. Some studies will be carried out on-site by various instruments in the spacecraft itself.
The investigation of Phobos soil may confirm or refute the hypothesis that some of the meteorites found on Earth contain substance from Mars.
A spacecraft to fly to Phobos, Galimov said, is currently being developed at a Russian scientific institution, which has developed every Russian automatic probe that landed or worked on Venus, Mars and the Moon, including the famed Moon rover, which made a many-kilometre trek across the lunar surface in 1970.
Initially, the Phobos-Grunt expedition was scheduled for 2005. The deadline has since been pushed back to 2007.
"No effort should be spared to preserve the culture of planetary studies in Russia, because it is a great culture," said Yury Osipov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "We cannot remain mere carriers for research spacecraft of other countries".
As regards the Moon, Russia is preparing equally interesting programmes to study its internal structure and analyse substance in a near-polar crater. The first of these goals must be achieved by seismically probing the Moon. This project may shed light on the origins of the Moon - whether the Moon was formed from primeval matter at the same time as Earth or split off from the Earth during its catastrophic collision with another space body the size of Mars.
Pre-polar lunar craters are notable because despite the extremely low temperatures in them (minus 240 degrees Centigrade), they can concentrate and preserve many substances including substances transported through outer space. Galimov said the Moon's pre-polar craters may prove to be a "museum of panspermia". Panspermia is the hypothesis that micro-organisms from outer space are responsible for life on Earth.
The Moon has also attracted increased interest as an advantageous source of raw materials. "Projects to use them to generate energy are quite serious", said Galimov. Terrestrial sources - hydrocarbon and nuclear fuels - will be used up in the near future. The Moon has reserves of helium-3, which can form the basis of ecologically safe form of the thermonuclear energy of the future. "In order to supply mankind with energy for one year," the scientist noted, "it is necessary to make only 2 to 3 space flights to bring helium-3 back to Earth." In Galimov's view, this could become a reality in 30 to 40 years.
"The world's attitude to the Moon has changed today," said Georgy Polishchuk, deputy director-general of Rosaviakosmos. "But there is no official opinion yet what to do with the Moon," he said and stressed that Rosaviakosmos, like the Russian Academy of Sciences, "is not pleased with the state of things in space research".
As for the manned exploration of Mars, as distinct from unmanned, "in engineering terms this programme is feasible for Russia, but is not yet contemplated," Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Boris Alyoshin told journalists recently. He recalled that these types of programmes were drawn up even in the Soviet Union. "The issue, however, is not one of technology, but of rational use of resources, which are not very ample," he said.
At the same time, Alyoshin emphasised that "our ambitions to explore Mars or lunar space go far".
Meanwhile, Russia is contributing massively to international projects. For example, the Russian Omega scientific instrument on the European Mars Express craft, which was launched by a Russian rocket, has recently discovered ice on Mars.