Russia returned to long-range space exploration on Tuesday with the successful launch of a probe that will, if all goes well, fly to Mars and bring a soil sample from one of its moons back to earth.

A Zenit-2SB booster was fired on schedule from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur space centre shortly after midnight on Wednesday Moscow time (2000 GMT), starting the space vehicle on a three-year flight to the Mars moon Phobos. Russia’s last inter-planetary space mission was in 1996.

A robot lander will scoop up a sample of the moon’s surface and return it to earth in August 2014, mission controllers at Russia’s national space agency Roscosmos said, according to the news agency Interfax.

Keywords: PhobosMars mission