The UK's astronomy research funding body, PPARC, has earmarked £1.7m to develop technology that will seek out evidence of past or present life on Mars.
The cash, part of the UK's commitment to the European Aurora programme, will be split across nine projects to develop technology and instruments for the 2011 ExoMars mission, Europe's first solo mission to the red planet.
PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) says the money will be spent on furthering research in areas when the UK already has a proven track record. It aims to build on the knowledge gained from the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission, and the hugely successful Mars Express orbiter and Huygens probe.
Professor Keith Mason, PPARC's Chief Executive, said: "Mars Express has, and still is, delivering outstanding science from orbit around the Red Planet...but we have unfinished business on the surface. To really understand the mysteries of Mars we need ground-truth data and ExoMars will deliver that with the rover and base station".
UK researchers will use the money to put forward plans for a rover to explore the surface, a chip capable of identifying organic materials and a panoramic camera to map the planet in three dimensions. Other projects include a microseismometer to detect any Marsquakes, entry, descent and landing systems and a simulation to model parachute behaviour on Mars.
The remainder of the money will go to developing an atmospheric experiment package, and instruments to study the geology of the planet, and the type and amount of radiation reaching the surface.
Professor Mason says the funding will put UK teams in a strong position to win "leading roles" in the ExoMars mission itself. ®