Rover that will search for life on Mars named after Rosalind Franklin

Olive Hawkins
February 9, 2019

The European Space Agency (ESA) has named its next Mars rover, due to touch down on the Red Planet in March 2021, in honor of British scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose research was crucial to scientists' determining the structure of DNA.

The Rosalind Franklin rover - which will be used to drill down into the soil of Mars and analyze its makeup - will be launched next year in a collaborative mission with the Russian space agency.

It's said that when American scientist James Watson saw Franklin's X-ray crystallography image of DNA, he immediately realized he and English scientist Francis Crick were right about its double-helix structure and published their findings.

'[The] name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore, ' said Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA).

"Although we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving ESA".

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"The European Space Agency is a real asset to the work - the United Kingdom is a proud founding member and will remain committed into the future", he said.

The ExoMars rover, which ESA officials are now just calling Rosalind for short, joins other ESA space mission hardware bearing the names of historical figures such as the Schiaparelli module, named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, that attempted a landing on Mars in 2016. Franklin's work was integral to their discovery of the correct structure of DNA. She studied physical chemistry at Newnham College, one of only two women's colleges at Cambridge University, and subsequently spent several years studying the micro-structures of different types of coals and carbons.

Franklin's contribution to their research remained largely overlooked in science books until the 1990s. Unpublished drafts of her papers show that she had determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix. Because she died in 1958, aged 37, she never received the recognition given to her male peers for deciphering the DNA.

The main aims of ExoMars is to examine the geological environment on Mars and search for evidence of environments that may have once, and perhaps could still, support life. Scientists said it will have a degree of "intelligence" that allows it to make some rudimentary decisions on its own.

Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage is leading the build of the rover while the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory is leading on a key instrument known as the PanCam, a high-resolution 3D camera which will be used to look at the terrain and rocks to try to detect signs of life.

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