ESA governments agreed to spend more than 600 million euros ($708 million) to send a sophisticated rover to Mars in 2011 as part of a program that will also supply Europe with technologies needed to send probes to other worlds.

The ExoMars project includes the launch of a carrier vehicle and a descent module carrying a rover designed to seek evidence of past or current life on Mars. The package would be small enough to be launched aboard a Russian Soyuz 2b vehicle from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.

ExoMars is part of Europe’s Aurora space exploration initiative, whose initial funding problems were solved after ESA decided to abandon its initial astronaut-centered approach to focus on robotic exploration. That shift in focus attracted financial backing from the British and German governments, both of which agreed to take substantial stakes in ExoMars.

In addition to its exploration agenda, ExoMars is designed to develop European expertise in entry, descent and landing technologies.

ESA’s governments also agreed to spend around 125 million euros between 2006 and 2009 on technologies thought to be needed for a future international space exploration effort to the Moon and Mars.

European scientists are divided about whether establishing a permanent lunar presence should be a priority. Some want to focus attention exclusively on Mars. A final decision on whether to pursue a lunar exploration program will be made in 2008.

A two-year program to investigate a European role in Russia’s planned Clipper manned space vehicle did not win support at the ESA ministerial council in Berlin despite a relatively modest budget of about 50 million euros.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said the Clipper proposal may have been misunderstood by ESA’s government delegations, some of which said it is too soon to make a commitment to Clipper. Dordain said the Clipper idea nonetheless is likely to be re-introduced to ESA governments in the near future as a way of assuring that a future international exploration effort has at least one alternative to the U.S. Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Dordain was scheduled to travel to Moscow Dec. 9 to meet with Russia’s Roskosmos space agency, and the Clipper decision was expected to be high on the agenda.