After several years of hints and informal discussions, Moscow has officially asked the United States to help with a Mars mission. This opportunity to work together in space, which the Reagan administration is now considering, is important early fruitage from the agreement on space cooperation the two nations signed last April.
Specifically, the Soviets have asked that the American Mars Observer spacecraft carry an extra transmitter to help relay pictures from a Soviet mission in 1994.
NASA plans to launch the Mars Observer in 1992. It is to orbit the red planet and survey the surface chemistry of its atmosphere. Although the primary mission of the US spacecraft should be completed by 1994, it will still be active when the Soviet craft arrives near Mars.
The Soviet mission will include a French-Soviet instrumented balloon that will float in the thin Martian air. The proposed transmitter on Mars Observer would allow the balloon to relay 2 to 3 times as much data as it could send without such help, according to the Dec. 21 issue of the industry journal Aviation Week and Space Technology. Data from the joint venture would be shared.
If the administration approves it, this small but scientifically important contribution to the Soviet mission could be a first step toward wider cooperation in space.
Leonard Fisk, NASA associate administrator for space science and applications, has explained that the April agreement ``provides a framework for discussing coordinating activities in essentially all areas of space science.'' He says it gives the two nations ``a very useful device [with which] to build for the future.''
At a planetary exploration symposium at George Washington University earlier this month, Dr. Fisk forecast that US and Soviet space science activities would complement each other in the 1990s. They would provide, he said, ``a broad range of information'' on the solar system.
The Soviets appear to be concentrating largely on Mars, with several missions approved or in the planning stage. NASA has missions - either authorized or in advanced planning - to make extensive studies of Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and one or more comets and asteroids.
Wherever possible, Fisk said, the two nations should coordinate their activities to get the largest scientific return on their space investments. Both Soviet and United States space officials have frequently cited Mars exploration as an obvious field in which to begin working together.
Fisk noted at the symposium that one of the five NASA teams set up under the space agreement was in Moscow discussing cooperation on Mars research. That team, which held discussions with the Soviets Dec. 7-Dec. 13, returned with the request for the 1994 data relay.
According to Fisk, other areas of possible cooperation include allowing the Soviets extensive use of data from the US Viking mission that orbited Mars and sent landers to its surface a decade ago. This, he said, would be ``very useful for Soviet planning.''
Also, NASA's Deep Space Tracking Network would be very helpful for tracking the Soviet's mission to the Martian moon Phobos next year and for coordinating their 1994 mission with Mars Observer.