Europe’s Mars rover named “Rosalind Franklin” in honor of DNA pioneer

Franklin’s work was essential towards unraveling the structure of DNA, but her contribution was largely ignored until recently. Now, the European Space Agency has named its new Mars rover after her.

Artistic depiction of the ExoMars rover. Image credits: ESA.

In July 2018, the UK space agency announced a competition to name the rover, which is scheduled to launch in 2020 as part of the ongoing ExoMars mission. Over 36,000 people from all over the European Union sent their proposals and suggestions. Apparently, the ESA learned from the previous “Boaty McBoatFace” experience and instead of choosing the most popular suggestion, they had a team of experts select from the proposals.

The ESA has a long tradition of naming its missions after famous researchers, and this was no exception. British astronaut Tim Peake announced the decision: the rover will be named Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind was a British chemist and X-ray crystallographer who contributed to unraveling the double helix structure of our DNA. However, her contribution was ignored and even denied in subsequent years. This is a well-deserved recognition of her contribution.

“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. Rosalind the rover captures this spirit and carries us all to the forefront of space exploration,” says ESA Director General Jan Woerner.

Rosalind herself was much enamored with space exploration, although unfortunately, she did not get to witness to much of it.

“In the last year of Rosalind’s life, I remember visiting her in hospital on the day when she was excited by the news of the [Soviet Sputnik satellite] – the very beginning of space exploration,” Franklin’s sister, Jenifer Glynn, said according to the BBC. ”She could never have imagined that over 60 years later there would be a rover sent to Mars bearing her name, but somehow that makes this project even more special.”

The new ExoMars rover will be the first of its kind, being able to combine the capability to roam around Mars and to study its subsurface. The mission is being run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos. ExoMars was originally supposed to have three parts: an orbiter, this rover, and a lander, named Schiaparelli after an Italian astronomer. However, Schiaparelli crashed into Mars, a disaster that was likely caused by a software bug.

If everything goes according to plan, the mission will launch in 2020, and Rosalind Franklin will land on Mars in 2021, offering us a new understanding of the geological processes on the Red Planet.

“This rover will scout the martian surface equipped with next-generation instruments – a fully-fledged automated laboratory on Mars,” says Tim Peake.

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