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Space agency chiefs from the U.S., Europe and Russia are setting up talks aimed at finding a way to work toward a Mars sample-return mission in the face of budget uncertainty in the U.S. that threatens to upend the joint effort worked out by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Although NASA will loft the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission as early as Nov. 25 to help find the best place to look for samples, and Congress came close to meeting NASA’s full funding request for planetary science in its fiscal 2012 appropriation, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has so far withheld its endorsement of joint NASA/ESA missions in 2016 and 2018.

As a result, ESA has turned to the Russian space agency Roscosmos for possible launch of its planned Mars orbiter in the 2016 window. Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin says in principle that Russia will be glad to accommodate ESA, but details remain to be hammered out.

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