NASA's hoping to reorganize its budget to allow a trip to Mars by the end of the decade.
While joint US-European missions scheduled for 2016 and 2018 have been canceled, NASA reckons there's still a chance for a robotic mission just a little later, between 2018 and 2020 - if it can be made a little cheaper.
Former veteran NASA program manager Orlando Figueroa has been named as head of a newly-established Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG), tasked with reformulating the Mars Exploration Program. He's preparing a draft framework for review by March 15.
"The team will develop a plan that advances the priorities in the National Research Council's Decadal Survey, which puts sample return as the top scientific goal, and leverages NASA's research in enabling technology," says NASA' s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld.
"Our investments in the new Mars program will incorporate elements of advanced research and technologies in support of a logical sequence of missions to answer fundamental scientific questions and ultimately support the goal of sending people to Mars."
NASA insists that Mars exploration is still a top priority, with investment over the last ten years totalling $6.1 billion.
"The science and engineering communities have worked continuously over a decade to define our knowledge gaps for Mars exploration, so we have a solid starting point," says Grunsfeld.
The Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars in 2004, is still operating way beyond its original expected deadline of 90 days. There are also two satellites in operation - the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey - and the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, is due to land this August.
In 2013, NASA will launch the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter, the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. And there are still plans to send a manned mission to Mars in the mid-2030s.