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WASHINGTON — A Mars orbiter NASA plans to launch in the 2020s could carry the mechanisms needed to collect and store sealed Martian surface samples for a return trip to Earth, an agency official said here Oct. 5.

The technology is crucial for the long-term, multimission, sample-return campaign that is quietly driving NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program. It is nonetheless conspicuously absent from the agency’s well-publicized “Journey to Mars” public relations campaign and barely a blip in official budget documents drafted each year to justify construction of new Mars rovers and satellites.

The orbiter would be NASA’s next strategic mission — that is, a mission custom-ordered by the agency and not selected through a competition that includes proposed missions to other places — to the red planet after the Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to …


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