WASHINGTON — NASA is inviting scientists to provide ideas for the agency’s retooled robotic Mars exploration program, which in the wake of NASA’s exit from a joint sample-collection campaign with Europe aims to send a $700 million mission to the red planet in 2018 or 2020.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said during an April 13 teleconference that scientists can submit their ideas online at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/marsconcepts2012/abstracts/. NASA will present some of the abstracts it receives June 12 during a meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

NASA ultimately will design its next Mars mission using feedback gathered by a team led by the agency’s former Mars czar, Orlando Figueroa. The team will submit its final report in August to Grunsfeld, NASA human spaceflight chief William Gerstenmaier and NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck.

The mission could be an orbiter or a rover. Grunsfeld has said repeatedly that either configuration will have to contribute in some way to the planetary science community’s top priority of one day returning a martian soil sample to Earth.

The replanned Mars mission, referred to in budget documents as Mars Next Generation, will carry a price tag that falls somewhere between that of the 2013 Maven Scout mission and the 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which cost $670 million and more than $720 million, respectively.

The White House’s 2013 budget request included a 21 percent cut to NASA’s planetary science budget, prompting the agency to withdraw from a joint Mars exploration campaign with the European Space Agency. As envisioned, the new Mars mission would conduct scientific research while beginning to lay groundwork for eventual human exploration of the red planet.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.