LOS ANGELES – Know how to go to Mars cheaply? NASA can use your help.
The space agency on Friday put out a call for ideas for the next Mars mission in 2018. The fine print: The cost can't be astronomical and the idea has to move the country closer to landing humans on the red planet in the 2030s.
"This is the kickoff," said NASA sciences chief John Grunsfeld.
The race to redraw a new, cheaper road map comes two months after NASA pulled out of a partnership with the European Space Agency on two missions targeted for 2016 and 2018, a move that angered scientists. The 2018 mission represented the first step toward hauling Martian soil and rocks back to Earth for detailed study - something many researchers say is essential in determining whether microbial life once existed there.
Agency officials said returning samples is still a priority, but a reboot was necessary given the financial reality.
In the past decade, NASA has spent $6.1 billion exploring Earth's closest planetary neighbor. President Barack Obama's latest proposed budget slashed spending for solar system exploration by 21 percent, making the collaboration with the Europeans unaffordable.
A newly formed team will cull through the ideas and come up with options by summer around the time when NASA's latest mission, a $2.5 billion car-sized rover Curiosity, will land near the equator on Mars. NASA headquarters is the ultimate decider of which future projects to fund.
Whatever mission flies in 2018, it will be vastly cheaper than Curiosity and will be capped at $700 million.
NASA is mainly seeking suggestions from scientists and engineers around the world, but you don't have to have a Ph.D. Anyone can submit a proposal online and go through a lengthy process.
"Check all the boxes and you may be considered," said NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown.
Scientists welcomed the chance to offer input but worried about the budget uncertainty.
"It will be extremely difficult to plan and implement the next specific steps that will lead to Mars sample return," Arizona State University scientist Jim Bell said in an email. He is part of the rover Curiosity team.