A Scottish space programme has been awarded almost £4 million to develop a drill to explore the surface of Mars.

The Space Glasgow research group at the University of Glasgow received the funding to go towards building a drill to extract and contain samples from the surface of the red planet.

It is expected to be built by the summer of 2016 and will be tested on the uninhabited Devon Island in Baffin Bay, Canada, which is described as "one of the most Mars-like places on Earth" by scientists. Dr Patrick Harkness and Professor Margaret Lucas from the university's engineering school are leading the drilling programme.

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Dr Harkness said: "The Martian surface has features that look like dried up riverbeds, suggesting that the planet may have been much wetter in the past. Even today, there may be brine near the surface.

"Samples of the surface rocks would be extremely useful to develop our understanding of how similar Mars might have been to the Earth and how the planets have diverged."

The drill will use high-frequency vibrations to shatter the rock on the surface of the plant rather than drill through it and potentially damage the samples.

Dr Harkness added: "Planetary drilling is difficult because the low gravity makes it difficult to apply the large forces that are normally used to shatter rock on Earth while the need to preserve the samples means that the rock temperature must be kept close to ambient.

"Once we have the samples, they cannot be returned directly to Earth because of the risk - however remote - that they could contain pathogens dangerous to our planet.

"They must be sealed inside a container that will only be opened in a secure laboratory."

The automated Curiosity rover operated by Nasa is currently exploring the surface of Mars and the space agency reported late last year that it had found evidence of a freshwater lake that may once have supported life on the planet.

The £3.95m of funding is from the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme, which aims to boost research and education across Europe.