NASA is looking to firm up future Mars exploration options by August, as the agency rebounds from a proposed 20% cut in the planetary exploration program that forced it to withdraw from a budding partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) for the ExoMars missions in 2016 and 2018.

Though the long-term federal funding outlook is uncertain, NASA’s recently established Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) is looking at perhaps $700-800 million for either a lander or an orbital mission launch in 2018 or 2020.

Still, there are no guarantees that NASA and the national policy-making apparatus can forge a new roadmap beyond the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which was launched in late November and is closing in on an Aug. 6 landing attempt at Gale Crater, and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, which is scheduled for a late 2013 liftoff. MSL, a $2.5 billion, two-year rover mission, will evaluate the habitability of the 100-mi.-wide equatorial crater. Maven, a $625 million orbiter, will assess the role played by the solar wind in the erosion of what may have been a denser Martian atmosphere.

MPPG restructuring, which is being facilitated by veteran NASA Mars program manager Orlando Figueroa, will attempt to merge the resources and objectives of NASA’s science and human exploration directorates as well as the Office of the Chief Technologist through internal deliberations as well as outreach to external experts. The August deadline permits the process to shape the agency’s 2014 budget formulation and implementation of 2013 spending.

“We are moving forward rapidly with our planning effort,” John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science, told an April 13 briefing with the news media. “I’m very optimistic this will result in an extremely exciting and long-lasting Mars exploration program.”

The planning group intends to present its inputs to scientists, engineers, academics, representatives from industry, other federal agencies and the international community during an open forum at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston June 12-14.

The forum will examine pre-submitted abstracts in three key areas: instrumentation and investigation; safe landing strategies intended to strive for a 10-fold improvement in the current 10-km targeting; and surface systems capabilities, including in-situ resource utilization, long-range rover navigation and access to areas of scientific interest on crater and canyon walls or steep slopes.

President Barack Obama’s April 2010 directive that NASA prepare for human missions to the Martian environs in the mid-2030s is a strong driver in the replanning effort, according to Grunsfeld and Doug McCuistion, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program lead. In his remarks at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the president directed the space agency to carry out a human mission to an asteroid by 2025 as a stepping-stone to the red planet.

In July 2009, NASA and ESA agreed to collaborate on missions launched in 2016 and 2018 and designed to establish the ground work for a robotic Mars sample return mission. Samples of soil and rock brought back to Earth would undergo a rigorous examination of the mineralogy and astrobiological markers. With NASA’s exit, Russia and ESA have announced plans to collaborate on ExoMars (Aerospace DAILY, March 19).

The MPPG considers an international sample return a high priority for the long term, Grunsfeld says.

The agency is independently assessing three Discovery-class mission options for a single 2016 launch. A Mars geophysics monitor for studies of the planet’s internal composition is one option.

In February, the White House presented Congress with a fiscal 2013 budget proposal that matches NASA’s fiscal 2012 top line of $17.71 billion, including the cut to planetary science. The annual out-year estimate for the top line remains unchanged through 2017.

Within the latest budget, the agency’s Mars line drops to $360 million from $587 million in fiscal 2013, then sinks to $189 million in fiscal 2015 before rising to $500 million in fiscal 2017.

Over the past decade, NASA’s Martian landers and orbiters have revealed a frozen underground water reservoir, evidence of past briny subsurface water and a hydrological cycle even in the thin atmosphere.

Traces of atmospheric methane detected by a European mission (Mars Express, 2004) hint at the possibility of subsurface biological activity. which is intriguing for scientists, but a must-know before humans attempt to land.