UK engineers will design a robot that can retrieve rock samples on Mars so they can be sent to Earth for study.
The European Space Agency is issuing contracts to industry to spec the technology needed for what will be a complex joint undertaking with the US.
Aerospace giant Airbus will scope the concept for a surface “fetch rover” at its Stevenage centre north of London.
Esa and the American space agency (Nasa) expect to send the sample-return equipment to the Red Planet in 2026.
“It will be a relatively small rover – about 130kg; but the requirements are very demanding,” said Ben Boyes who will lead the feasibility team at Airbus.
“The vehicle will have to cover large distances using a high degree of autonomy, planning its own path ahead day after day,” he told BBC News.
Esa and Nasa signed a letter of intent in April committing themselves to bringing back pieces of Martian rock and soil to Earth before the end of the next decade.