A Rover Named After DNA Pioneer Rosalind Franklin is Headed for Mars in 2020

“This name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore.”

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Feb 7 2019, 4:57pm

Concept art of Rosalind Franklin. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

A rover due to land on Mars in 2021 just got its official name: Rosalind Franklin. The name honors the English scientist who made essential contributions to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure among other scientific advancements.

Franklin, who died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at just 37 years old, is remembered as a brilliant chemist and a trailblazer for women in STEM. A talented X-ray crystallographer, Franklin produced the X-ray images of DNA used by James Watson and Francis Crick to deduce its molecular structure. Franklin’s contributions were overlooked at the time, but her work is now regarded as an essential part of the achievement.

Previously known as the ExoMars rover, the robot’s new name was selected from over 36,000 suggestions from citizens across the UK and Europe. Since the rover’s mission is focused on looking for signs on ancient life on Mars, it’s fitting that its namesake is the woman who helped untangle the elusive genetic structure of life.

“This name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore,” said European Space Agency (ESA) director general Jan Woerner in a statement. “Science is in our DNA, and in everything we do at ESA. Rosalind the rover captures this spirit and carries us all to the forefront of space exploration.”

ESA astronaut Tim Peake announced the news on Thursday at the Airbus facility in Stevenage, UK, where the rover is being built.

Rosalind the rover is part of the ExoMars mission, a collaborative project between the ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. The spacecraft is due for launch in July 2020, with a March 2021 landing date on Mars.

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Rosalind Franklin, 1955. Image: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Rosalind is not the only rover scheduled to embark for Mars in two years’ time. Both NASA and China’s National Space Administration have Mars rover launches scheduled for the summer of 2020. It’s not yet clear which of the three robots will get to the Martian surface first.

Read More: Searching for Life on Mars Is Really Hard

European and Russian mission leads haven’t officially signed off on Rosalind’s future home on Mars, but the preferred landing site will be in Oxia Planum. This region is rich in clay deposits, which implies that it may have been covered in water back in Mars’ wet phase, nearly four billion years ago. The rover will roll around on six wheels, and is equipped with a drill for obtaining subsurface samples.

Franklin’s sister, Jenifer Glynn, told the BBC that Franklin, who died just months after the launch of Sputnik 1, was fascinated with space exploration.

"She could never have imagined that over 60 years later there would be a rover sent to Mars bearing her name,” Gynn said, “but somehow that makes this project even more special."

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