NASA is racing to come up with a new, cheaper road map to Mars.
The space agency said Friday that it's seeking ideas from scientists and engineers around the globe for robotic missions it can do in 2018 and beyond.
Earlier this year, NASA pulled out of a partnership with the Europeans due to budget cuts. NASA and the European Space Agency had been working on missions targeted for 2016 and 2018 that woud have marked the first steps toward bringing Martian soil and rocks back to Earth.
The Europeans say they will continue moving ahead with the multibillion-dollar ExoMars program, thanks to a newly forged arrangement with Russia.
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NASA officials say returning samples is still a priority, but a reboot is necessary to get closer to fulfilling the country's goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. Future missions will be aimed at preparing the way for human missions as well as looking for traces of past or present life on Mars.
"What we're really trying to do is identify architectural pathways," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science, told journalists. "This is the kickoff."
The space agency is calling for ideas that could be adapted for a $700 million Mars mission to be launched in 2018 or 2020, involving either an orbiter or lander. Concepts are to be discussed at a June workshop in Houston. NASA's Mars Program Planning Group will cull through the ideas and come up with mission options by August.
NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory is en route to Mars and is due to drop the car-sized Curiosity rover onto the Martian surface in August for nearly two years of surface studies. Another Red Planet mission, known as the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution probe or MAVEN, is due for launch in 2013.
The $485 million MAVEN mission is the last trip to Mars on NASA's current launch list.
More about the Mars program:
- NASA raids other budgets to fund Mars effort
- Slash missions to Mars? No way, backers say
- Current and future Mars missions take shape
- Is the case for Mars facing a crisis?
This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.
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