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Why Mars Mission Tops Wish List: Space Exploration Priorities Explained

Exploring icy planets, lunar oceans and martian soil should rank high on NASA’s to-do list, an expert panel of the National Research Council concluded this week. But high costs could keep some of the most promising missions earthbound.

Planet scientists tasked with placing value on space exploration factored in budget constraints when ranking the next decade’s planetary missions, and advised that some of the multi-billion dollar missions only go forward if price tags go down.

The Planetary Science Decadal Survey was produced after interviews with the world’s top planetary scientists, number crunching by independent contractors … and a large dose of sticker shock, says Steven Squyres of Cornell University, the panel’s chair, who recently detailed the report in an interview with PBS NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O’Brien:

Topping the list is a mission to send a rover to Mars to collect rock and soil samples, and then haul them back to earth, where they’d be analyzed for evidence of life. The Mars Astrobiology Explorer Cacher, known as MAX-C, would also study the planet’s geology and climate history.

But that mission should only be undertaken if at least $1 billion gets shaved off from the $3.5 billion estimated cost, the committee concluded. NASA and the European Space Agency, which would partner on the mission, will need to work together to drive that cost down.

Second on the priority list should be studying Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, which may contain a subsurface ocean beneath its surface, a possible haven for life. And third, a mission to the ice giant Uranus, which is largely understudied, and which Squyres calls “a fundamentally new and different class of planet.”

But these mark only a small sample of the panel’s recommended missions. Also on the list: sending a lander to Venus, an atmospheric probe to Saturn and collecting samples from the nucleus of a comet and from the far side of the moon.

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