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NASA to exchange 'flagship' missions for small-ball projects (+video)

NASA is drastically scaling back its Mars exploration initiatives in exchange for smaller, more efficient missions, agency officials say. 

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"We are looking at a basic mission for 2018," Grunsfeld said. "I'm not a betting person, but I'd certainly plan on it."

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He added that such a "basic mission" might cost somewhere between the $485 million MAVEN and NASA's $720 million Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which launched in 2005 and is still studying the Red Planet from above.

Mars sample-return not dead?

NASA's scaled-back Mars strategy puts on hold any plans for a sample-return mission, which would certainly fall in the "flagship" category.

This is bad news for astrobiologists, many of whom believe that sending a piece of the Red Planet back to Earth for study is the best way to assess Mars' habitability, and to search for signs of Martian life.

However, scientists shouldn't give up hopes for a sample-return effort, Grunsfeld said. He is optimistic that careful planning — and rosier budget outlooks in the future — will one day give researchers on Earth a chance to study Martian rocks and soil up close.

"We're all folks who dream about science, dream about future science, dream about exploration, dream about Mars," Grunsfeld said. "I would certainly hope that, within 20 years, we have our first carefully selected samples of Mars back here near Earth or on Earth, in laboratories where we really can do the tough work to understand the climate conditions on past Mars, current Mars and the possibility that life might have existed there once."

You can follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter@michaeldwall. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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