Russia is talking to NASA and the European Space Agency about building manned research colonies on the moon, according to Russian news reports.
Russia's Federal Space Agency, known as Roscosmos, is also consulting with NASA and ESA about the possibility of placing manned space stations in lunar orbit, Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported Thursday.
A growing body of research supports the supposition that humanity can live for extended periods of time on or around the moon, Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said.
"Today, we know enough about it, we know that there is water in its polar areas," Popovkin told the Vesti FM radio station Thursday, according to Ria Novosti. Popovkin added that "we are now discussing how to begin (the moon’s) exploration with NASA and the European Space Agency."
Russian space officials have already begun investigating a "prospective manned transportation system" to the moon, Popovkin said.
An effort to put boots on the lunar ground would complement Russia's existing robotic moon exploration plans. The nation hopes to send two unmanned missions, called Luna-Glob and Luna-Resource, to the moon by 2020, according to the reports.
A partnership between Russia, NASA and ESA on a big human spaceflight project is not unprecedented; the three agencies have been working together for more than a decade to build and operate the International Space Station. And they're in active discussions — along with a handful of other space agencies — about how humanity should best explore outer space.
In his latest comments about moon bases, Popovkin may be referencing these broad, overarching conversations, NASA officials said.
"We believe Popovkin may be referring to the work of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) and its Global Exploration Roadmap," NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington told Space.com in an email. "NASA has been meeting with senior managers from Russia and nine other space agencies to advance coordinated space exploration. The ISECG, as this group is called, has developed a long-range human exploration strategy over the past year."
The Global Exploration Roadmap begins with the space station and then expands human presence out into the solar system, leading ultimately to human exploration of the Martian surface, Harrington added. The roadmap identifies two possible pathways to Mars — going to an asteroid first, or going to the moon first.
"Both pathways were deemed practical approaches addressing common high-level exploration goals developed by the participating agencies, recognizing that individual preferences among participating space agencies may vary regarding these pathways," Harrington said.
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A tough year for Russian spaceflight
Russia may have caused some strain in its international partnerships in the wake of the failure of the country's Phobos-Grunt Mars probe, which crashed to Earth Sunday.
The $165 million spacecraft got stuck in Earth orbit shortly after its Nov. 8 launch, when Phobos-Grunt's thrusters failed to fire as planned to send it toward the Red Planet. Roscosmos officials still aren't sure what caused the malfunction, but they speculated last week that some sort of sabotage may be responsible.
Then, this week, some Russian space officials said that strong emissions from a United States radar station in the Marshall Islands may have accidentally brought Phobos-Grunt down. Outside experts regard that scenario as highly unlikely.
Phobos-Grunt was just one of five high-profile failures for the Russian space program in 2011. The country also suffered three botched satellite launches and the crash of the unmanned Progress 44 supply ship, which was delivering cargo to the space station.
The Progress 44 mishap was caused by a problem in the third-stage engine of its Soyuz rocket. Russia uses a similar version of the Soyuz to launch astronauts to the space station, so flights to the orbiting outpost were grounded temporarily this autumn until the problem was identified and fixed.
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