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.
Viking 1 launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on August 20, 1975, bound for Mars. A twin spacecraft, Viking 2, followed about three weeks later.
Each Viking spacecraft had two parts--an orbiter (top left) and lander (bottom left). After orbiting Mars and scouting for landing sites, the orbiter and lander would separate. Then the lander, protected from intense hear by an "aeroshell," would parachute to a safe landing (right).
This image from June 29, 1976, shows a 30 mile wide swath of Chryse Planitia dominated by Belz Crater. It's known as a "rampant crater" because of the raised ridge around the inner layer of ejecta, material thrown out from a volcano or meteor impact.
Viking 1 touched down on July 20, 1976, seven years to the day after the first moon landing. Just minutes later, the lander took this photograph, the first picture ever taken in the surface of Mars.
At left, the American flag is seen on the Viking 1 lander with the bicentennial symbol and Viking symbol below. At right, the six foot long rock known as "Big Joe" looms about 25 feet from the lander.
This is the first color image of the surface of Mars, snapped by Viking 1 the day after landing. The rocky wasteland, covered by iron oxide, at last provided an image to match the nickname "red planet."
Viking 1's sampling arm created a number of deep trenches in the red planet's soil as part of surface composition and biology experiments.
Meanwhile, the Viking 1 Orbiter continued to snap intriguing photos of the surface, like this photo from the Cydonia region that showed what many thought looked like a human face.
A Viking 1 Orbiter image from September 1976 shows debris flows east of the Hellas region. The image is about 174 miles across and the debris flows extend up to 12 miles from the source.
A global mosaic from 102 Viking 1 Orbiter images from February 1980 shows a full Martian hemisphere. The view represents what you would see from a spacecraft about 1500 miles high.
A color mosaic from Viking 1's Orbiter shows the eastern Tharsis region. At left, from top to bottom, are the three 15 mile high volcanic shields, Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons.
A color mosaic from Viking 1 shows the massive Olympus Mons volcano. The largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons is about the same size (in area) as the state of Arizona, nearly 375 miles in diameter and 16 miles high. A crater 50 miles wide sits atop the summit.
A color mosaic from both Viking Orbiters shows a part of Valles Marineris known as Chandor Chasma. The walls and floor show evidence of erosion. The Viking 2 Lander ended communications on April 11, 1980, and the Viking 1 Lander on November 13, 1982, after transmitting over 1400 images of the two sites. The Viking 2 Orbiter was powered down on July 25, 1978 after 706 orbits, and the Viking 1 Orbiter was powered down on August 17, 1980, after over 1400 orbits.