Russia has announced it will launch a fleet of space robots to explore the Moon.
Nasa's former space-race competitor (when it was still the Soviet Union) - and current close partner and contractor - unveiled its new "aggressive" exploration program at a symposium in Texas.
In a presentation titled "Lunar Farside and Poles — New Destinations for Exploration" Igor Mitrofanov of the Institute for Space Research said that robots would precede human exploration of the Moon's surface.
Russia last landed a spacecraft on the Moon in 1976. The Luna 24 craft was unmanned but returned samples of Moon rocks to Earth.
The new plan will focus on the Lunar poles. The first will launch in 2015 and land on the moon's south pole, to test its landing technology and communication systems, while analysing the local conditions and testing "volatile" systems.
The subsequent missions would include:
- Luna 26 (2016) - to orbit the Moon at 100 km, map its surface, measure the exosphere and look for new landing sites
- Luna 27 (2017) - a large lander to the south pole to study rocks and test drilling systems
- Luna 28 (2019) - a TBD mission to deliver lunar samples back to Earth via cryogenic freezing
- Luna 19 (2020) - to carry a long-distance lunar rover to explore the lunar surface
Mitrofanov said that manned missions could follow.
Nasa has welcomed the new plan and reminded the audience at the symposium that Russia is no stranger to Lunar exploration, having been resposible for the first spacecraft to hit the moon, photograph its "dark" side and return rock samples, among many other firsts.
Nasa also has a plan to return to the Moon, though its current focus is the development of a next-generation rocket and launcher that will mean it can send astronauts to the International Space Station on its own. Currently Nasa has to rely on Russia's Soyuz technology for manned ISS missions, and private companies including Space-X for resupply missions.