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.
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.
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]
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.
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