The European Space Agency (ESA)’s shiny new ExoMars rover finally has a name: Rosalind Franklin.
The rover is scheduled for lift off on July 25, 2020, and will land on Mars on March 19, 2021. Excitingly, it will hunt for evidence of life – both past and present – on the Red Planet. It will be equipped with a drill, allowing it to dig 2 meters (6.6 feet) into the ground to sift through the soil for signs of life.
According to ESA, the rover “will be the first of its kind to combine the capability to roam around Mars and to study it at depth.” It is part of the ExoMars program, a joint venture between ESA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.
Last summer, the UK Space Agency launched a competition inviting anyone from an ESA member state to submit a name for the new rover. More than 36,000 names were eagerly supplied by the public, and now, a panel of experts have chosen their favorite. The name was revealed by British astronaut Tim Peake at the Airbus factory in Stevenage, UK, where the rover is being assembled.
So why Rosalind Franklin?
Franklin’s work was vital to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, but she rarely receives the recognition she deserves.
Working as an X-ray crystallographer at King’s College London in the 1950s, Franklin produced high-resolution images of DNA fibers, showing that DNA has a helical structure. This data was shown to Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick by her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, providing them with evidence for their theory that DNA has a 3D helical structure. Sadly, Franklin died from ovarian cancer in 1958, and in 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology for a discovery in which she played a crucial role.
Franklin also showed that RNA, a molecule similar to DNA, has a single-stranded structure and carried out vital work on the tobacco mosaic virus, a disease that can have a devastating impact on a number of plant species.
It’s clear she was a great scientist who deserves to be recognized. And now, while James Watson has been stripped of various honorary titles due to his comments about race, Rosalind Franklin will walk on Mars.
“This name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore. Science is in our DNA, and in everything we do at ESA,” said ESA Director General Jan Woerner. “Rosalind the rover captures this spirit and carries us all to the forefront of space exploration.”