Britain has been chosen to lead Europe’s mission to search for life on Mars in a move that puts the UK right at the forefront of space exploration.

The decision was taken yesterday at a meeting of the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) ruling council attended by science minister Greg Clark.

Chancellor George Osborne made the surprise announcement that Britain had been awarded the “lead role” in the 2018 ExoMars mission in his Autumn Statement.

Through the UK Space Agency, the Government is devoting £47.7 million to ExoMars, almost as much as its £49.2 million contribution to the International Space Station.

Central to the mission will be a hi-tech British-built rover that will navigate itself across the Martian deserts.

The rover, being tested in a sandy “Mars yard” at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, will use a two metre (6.5 foot) long drill to extract samples from deep below the surface of the Red Planet and analyse them for signs of life.

Airbus Defence and Space spokesman Jeremy Close said: “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.”

He said the 150-strong Stevenage team had come on “leaps and bounds” developing the rover’s cutting edge technology.

A key feature of the ExoMars rover will be its autonomous navigation system, giving it an ability to think for itself as it travels from one exploration site to another.

Mr Close added: “The thing it’s going to do which the American rovers are not doing is look for life. It will actually have life-detecting technology. If it’s in the right place and life is there, the rover will find it.”

Scientists believe that while the exposed surface of Mars is irradiated and dead, primitive life could survive in deeper layers underground.

The ESA decision means that final fitting and testing of the rover’s scientific instruments will now take place in Stevenage and not in Italy, as had previously been proposed.

“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,” said Mr Close.

The announcement comes hard on the heels of ESA’s hugely successful Rosetta mission to land a probe on a comet more than 500 million miles from Earth, in which British scientists played a big part.

A total package for the UK space sector worth more than £200 million has been promised by the Government including £55 million in new resource and capital funding for the next year.

The Treasury pointed out that every pound of public money spent on space exploration produced a £10 return for the UK economy. Britain’s leadership of the ExoMars mission would create more than 200 new jobs and “vital spin-off technologies”.

More than £130 million has also been pledged for new satellite telecommunications technology which will be matched by industry.

European Space Agency handout of an artist's impression of the ExoMars rover drilling into rock (ESA/PA) © Provided by Press Association European Space Agency handout of an artist’s impression of the ExoMars rover drilling into rock (ESA/PA) The UK space sector is worth £11.3 billion to the UK economy and directly employs a workforce of 34,300.

News of the Mars mission was Mr Osborne’s cue to deliver a joke aimed at the Opposition benches.

To loud guffaws, he said: “We have often gazed on the barren wastelands of the Red Planet and long given up hope of finding intelligent life there. But signs of any life at all would be an advance.”