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Will Curiosity be NASA's last Mars rover? (+video)

Budget cuts have forced NASA to drastically scale back its planetary science missions. But the space agency still has hopes for a future mission that will collect samples of Martian soil and bring them to Earth. 

By Mike WallSPACE.com / July 19, 2012

This illustration depicts the moment immediately after the Curiosity Mars rover touches down on the Red Planet.

NASA

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Despite NASA's tough budget situation, the 1-ton rover streaking toward an Aug. 5 landing on Mars is unlikely to be the space agency's last big, ambitious Red Planet mission.

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NASA has less than three weeks before the space agency tries to land the Curiosity rover on Mars, but there's still time for problems.

Funding cuts have forced NASA to shelve plans for future multibillion-dollar "flagship" planetary missions beyond the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover, which will investigate Mars' potential to host past or present microbial life after it touches down three weeks from now. For the time being, the space agency is looking for ways to explore the Red Planet on the cheap.

But over the long haul, NASA still has its sights set on a particularly alluring flagship — a sample-return effort that would bring pieces of Mars back to Earth for study.

"The scientific goal — and for human exploration as well — of a Mars sample-return is still the highest priority in the long term," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science, said in April. [7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars]

Tough budget times

President Barack Obama's federal budget request for 2013, which was unveiled in February, keeps NASA's overall budget flat, at $17.7 billion.

But the request cuts NASA's planetary science funding from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion, with further reductions expected in coming years. The space agency's Mars program gets hit particularly hard, with funding dropping from $587 million this year to $360 million in 2013, then falling to just $189 million in 2015.

As a result, NASA is scaling back and reformulating its Red Planet exploration strategy. The space agency has put together a committee called the Mars Program Planning Group, which is assessing possible future missions to Mars.

NASA also withdrew from the European-led ExoMars mission, which aims to launch an orbiter and a rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

ExoMars is viewed as a key step toward sample-return, which the U.S. National Research Council identified last year as the highest-priority planetary science mission for the next decade.

Many researchers believe that sending pieces of the Red Planet back to Earth is the best way to search for signs of Martian life. But sample-return would almost certainly be a multibillion-dollar flagship effort, putting it out of NASA's reach in today's budget environment.

"There is no room in the current budget proposal from the president for new flagship missions anywhere," Grunsfeld said shortly after the budget was released. [NASA's 2013 Budget: What Will It Buy?]

Still aiming for sample-return

NASA has one more Mars exploration effort firmly on the docket beyond Curiosity, a $485 million orbiter called Maven(short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN), which is due to launch in late 2013 to study Mars' upper atmosphere.

The space agency also plans to launch another mission in either 2018 or 2020, to take advantage of a favorable Mars-Earth alignment and to keep the Red Planet program moving forward. This effort, which will likely cost less than $800 million, remains largely undefined, with rovers and orbiters still under consideration, officials have said.

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