Britain has been chosen to lead the European Space Agency’s (Esa) ExoMars project, which plans to put the first European rover on the surface of Mars in 2019.
The decision, made at Esa’s recently concluded ministerial council, was announced by Chancellor George Osborne in the Autumn Statement.
Britain has already been responsible for building the most exciting component of the ExoMars project, the body of the rover itself, which is currently having its design fine-tuned in Airbus Defence and Space facilities in Stevenage.
The UK government will contribute £47.7m to the ExoMars project, which is only £1.5m less than its contribution to the International Space Station.
"From our point of view, the decision is fantastic news. This is a flagship project not just for the UK but for Europe. It will be Europe's first interplanetary rover,” said Jeremy Close, spokesman of Airbus Defence and Space.
"From supplying the first nut and bolt to when it's ready to be put on a rocket and sent to Mars, all that work will now be done in Stevenage.”
About 150 people are currently working on the ExoMars project in the centre some 30km north of London.
Previously, it was expected that fitting instruments on the rover’s body as well as final testing would be done in Italy.
The rover, about a third the size of the current Mars exploration super star Curiosity, will drill 2m-deep holes into the Red Planet’s crust to extract unspoiled samples of soil which may hold evidence of past or present existence of life.
"The thing it's going to do, which the American rovers are not doing, is look for life,” Close said. “It will actually have life-detecting technology. If it's in the right place and life is there, the rover will find it."
The UK government has promised overall more than £200m of new funding for Britain’s booming space industry, which is currently employing some 34,300 people across the country.
Worth about £11.3bn, the UK’s space sector delivers impressive return on investment with every pound of public money spent on space exploration producing a £10 return for the UK economy.
The investment in the ExoMars project is believed to create a further 200 jobs and provide the basis for innovations that could be used in other industrial sectors.
E&T has visited the place where Airbus tests the ExoMars rover: