Europa or bust? Maybe not. Top 9 priorities for planetary research missions

The National Research Council has just unveiled planetary scientists' space-mission wish-list for the next 10 years. Tight federal budgets will provide the reality check. Here's a sampler of missions the panel recommends NASA undertake this decade.

1. Mars Astrobiology Explorer–Cacher: MAX-C

Dutch Slager / NASA / AP / File
This undated image provided by NASA shows technicians working on the new Mars rover, Curiosity, to be launched in November or December 2011. MAX-C would look very much like Curiosity but with much more precise tools and a container ('cacher') to collect and store samples.

This top-priority "flagship" mission is the US half of a joint NASA-European Space Agency mission that would launch two large rovers to Mars in 2018. The rovers would conduct detailed studies of rocks and soil to hunt specifically for environments that are – or could once have been – hospitable for life. In addition to on-site studies, the rovers would collect and store samples that could return to Earth on later missions. But the NRC panel said the US rover should be approved only if its $3.5 billion cost can be cut by $1 billion in FY 2015 dollars. If that can't be done, MAX-C should be postponed or canceled.

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