The European Space Agency (ESA) announced today that the upcoming rover in its ExoMars mission will be named after the late scientist Rosalind Franklin. Franklin codiscovered DNA’s double-helix structure, and her namesake rover will search Mars for signs of life.
“This name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore,” ESA director general Jan Wörner said in a statement. “Rosalind the rover captures this spirit and carries us all to the forefront of space exploration.”
Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958) was an English-born physical chemist and X-ray crystallographer. Her images of crystallized DNA fibers confirmed theories about DNA’s double-helix structure. Although her life and career were cut short by ovarian cancer, her work also helped lay the foundation of the field of structural virology and uncover the shape of RNA.
The Rosalind Franklin rover will also be a pioneer in studying the building blocks of life, this time on Mars. It will likely land in Oxia Planum, a lowland region just north of Mars’s equator. Observations from orbit show that Oxia Planum sits at the end of now dry channels that once contained flowing water. The region contains clay-rich minerals and has preserved its wet geologic history, making it a prime location for the rover to search for evidence of current and past life.
The name “Rosalind Franklin” was one of more than 36,000 entries submitted in a public contest to name the ExoMars rover. A panel of experts selected the name and revealed it at a ceremony at the Airbus Defence and Space facility in Stevenage, United Kingdom, where engineers currently are building the rover.
ExoMars is a joint mission between ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. The first phase of ExoMars, a lander and a satellite that detects trace gases in Mars’s atmosphere, was launched in 2016. The rover is part of the mission’s second phase, which is scheduled to launch in 2020 and land on the Red Planet in March 2021.
Learn more about the ExoMars mission and the Rosalind Franklin rover in the video below.
—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer