MOSCOW (AFP) Feb 17, 2004

Russia is developing a new manned space vessel with a reusable capsule that is twice as large as the Soyuz craft and could accommodate six rather than three astronauts, the head of the Russian space agency said on Tuesday.

"Space construction firm RKK Energiya is working on a project to build a vessel with a reusable capsule, weighing 12 to 14 tonnes, about twice as large as what we have now. It could accommodate six people at a minimum," Yury Koptev said, quoted by the ITAR-TASS news agency.

The Rosaviakosmos chief said it had not been decided whether to fly the capsule on the existing Soyuz rocket.

"There are proposals to modernise the Soyuz rocket and create a new model based on the same technology," he said.

Russia's top space official said the new rocket would boost the capacity of the space vessel to carry supplies.

"Due to its new engine and extensive use of hydrogen, the new rocket will have a payload practically equalling to that of the Zenit rocket," which can carry 15 tonnes, he said.

The Soyuz craft, first built in the 1960s to transport three astronauts, is not reusable.