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NASA looks past cancelled Mars missions to 2018

Attention, everyone! NASA has not given up on Mars yet.

That seemed to be the message of a conference call today, in which NASA officials talked about the planning efforts for a possible US$700-million Mars mission for launch in 2018 — the consolation prize for scientists still sore from the beating that came with the president’s 2013 budget and the news that it would cancel ExoMars  (pictured), a suite of joint missions in 2016 and 2018 with the European Space Agency.

John Grunsfeld, head of the science mission directorate, says that the 2018 mission and any thereafter would have to find common ground with NASA’s human-exploration office and space-technology division. “What we’re really trying to do is identify architectural pathways,” he says. “This is the kick-off.”

Actually, NASA had already announced the planning group two months ago. Orlando Figueroa, the former deputy director for space and technology at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is heading up the group, which by August is expected to deliver a set of Mars exploration pathways, as well as key science requirements for the 2018 mission. NASA will solicit input as to what key measurements should be made at a workshop in June at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.

Meanwhile, the microbes on Mars just keep on livin’! That’s the astounding — and, some say, specious — claim of scientists who are reinterpreting 36-year-old life-detection data from NASA’s Viking missions. That’s at least one reason to keep exploring Mars: you’ve got to give planetary scientists new data to play with. Otherwise the data from old missions keep rising up, like zombies, long after they’ve been put to rest.

Image credit: ESA

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