11:02 GMT +322 September 2017

    Countdown begins for Russia's space program

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    MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov.)

    The federal space program for 2006-2015 approved by the government this month gives the green light to a comprehensive research program. Russia will launch probes to Mars, and may also implement a long-range space-flight program similar to that announced by the United States last year.

    The Moon or Mars?

    This is an important question for Russia and the U.S., and many academics in both countries suggest the Moon should come first because it has been studied less than the Red Planet.

    "We have a paradoxical situation in that we know more about far-away Mars than we do about our planet's attendant satellite," said Igor Mitrofanov, laboratory director at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Space Research Institute. "We should remember that the Moon is a potential source of various chemical elements, including rare-earth elements."

    Roald Sagdeyev of the University of Maryland said that mankind should open the Moon as a place to develop cutting-edge technologies. He suggested exploring the Moon to map deposits of chemical elements using gamma spectroscopy. State-of-the-art moon vehicles would be best suited for this job, as they can soft-land on the Moon and collect all the necessary data about the Moon's surface and climate.

    Soviet-era achievements in science and technology mean Russia can still turn out the world's best automatic space probes. The legendary Lunokhod was developed at the Lavochkin science-and-production association.

    "[Our association] has carried out cutting-edge R&D projects in this sphere for more than 30 years, thereby amassing ample experience," Lavochkin First Deputy Director Roald Kremnev said. "Should Russia decide to resume its lunar program, it would take us a year to design a new-generation Lunokhod and another two or three years to assemble the vehicle."

    However, Russia's federal space program does not have a lunar subprogram, even while listing the country's plans to explore Mars in great detail. Two launches are planned by 2015.

    "We plan to launch the Phobos Ground probe to Mars in October 2009," Lavochkin general director and general designer Georgy Polishchuk said at Le Bourget Air Show. "An automatic spacecraft will orbit Mars. The probe will land on Phobos, a Martian satellite, operate there for three years, and return to Earth."

    The second Mars launch, for which the date has yet to be fixed, will land a probe on the Red Planet's surface. According to Polishchuk, the third phase will involve astronauts from Russia and the U.S., as automated devices alone cannot do everything on their own.

    The ISS Factor

    The International Space Station has material and psychological effects on the federal program. The station was designed to receive U.S. Space Shuttles, but it is still unclear when they will start flying again. Thus, Russia is in no position to plan annual spending and distribute other resources. Everything depends on shuttle-launch deadlines, which must happen this month or this fall at the latest, otherwise manned U.S. missions will fail. Moreover, the initial ISS program would remain on the drawing board.

    Continued stagnation or a decision to mothball the ISS program would spark a new wave of criticism of manned space flights. Advocates of unmanned space expeditions would then hold sway, while backers of manned missions would be left with virtually nothing.

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