A Russian company plans to send a robot probe to a Martian moon in 2007, where it will take a small sample of soil and bring it back to Earth for analysis, the news agency Itar-Tass said Tuesday.
The firm, Lavochkin, has made a mock-up of the probe and carried out a number of tests on it at a site at Kaluga, south of Moscow, it said, quoting Sergei Potekhin, director of OKB Kaluga, a firm that is also working on the scheme.
If all goes well, the probe would head for Phobos, one of Mars' two moons, in 2007 and scrape up around 100 grammes (three ounces) of soil which it would then bring back to Earth, the report said.
It gave no further details about the project.
The European Space Agency (ESA) next year will launch Mars Express, a mission in which a small rover will deploy from an orbiter that will swing around the Red Planet.
The rover, Beagle 2, will analyse soil samples, mainly to hunt for the presence of water.
But the range of equipment it will carry will be severely restricted by weight requirements. A more complete knowledge of the planet's history can only be derived from testing the samples in a big laboratory on Earth.
NASA and other international agencies have tentatively planned a mission to bring Martian soil samples back to Earth, but this is unlikely to take place before 2014, according to the NASA web site.
Russia has a brilliant history in space exploration and a roster of top space scientists, but its scope is limited by lack of cash.
Last month, it hatched a plan for a joint mission to Mars with NASA and ESA for sending a manned team to the planet in around 2014-15, at the cost of some 20 billion dollars.