NASA Reevaluates Mars Program After Budget Cuts

This structure, which resembles the monoliths planted on Earth and the moon by aliens in the well-known sci-fi film "2001: A Space Odyssey," was spotted in a NASA image of Mars

While sci-fi movie junkies are reeling over the recent NASA image in which a structure that resembles the monolith seen in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," protrudes off the surface of Mars, NASA announced today its search for alternative, cheaper ways to continue Mars exploration after it was rocked by recent budget cuts.

The agency has created the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) to develop and manage future robotic missions, and is encouraging scientists and engineers from around the world to contribute ideas.

The MPPG will be led by veteran aerospace engineer Orlando Figueroa and starting today scientists can submit ideas and abstracts online.

This comes on the heels of the announcement that NASA had pulled out of its partnership with European agencies, in which they were planning missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018. According to the Associated Press, the missions would have been the first step toward returning parts of the Red Planet - including soil and rocks - back to Earth.

"We are replanning in part because of the budget environment that we're in," said John Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist, five-time space shuttle astronaut and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

"We're moving quickly to develop options for future Mars exploration missions and pathways," Grusnfeld said. "As part of this process, community involvement, including international, is essential for charting the new agency-wide strategy for our future Mars exploration efforts."

As for the so-called monolith, experts say it's likely a rock that fell from the face of a nearby cliff.