Europe’s next Mars rover, slated to launch next year, will be named after noted scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose work led to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Last July, the UK’s space agency announced a competition to name the rover, which is scheduled to launch in 2020 as part of the ongoing ExoMars mission. People from across the European Union submitted 36,000 names for consideration and the winning name, Rosalind Franklin, was selected by a panel of experts. British astronaut Tim Peake announced the decision on Thursday.
In 1953, British chemist Franklin took an X-ray image of a strand of DNA, providing the first visual evidence of its double-helix structure. She died just five years later, at the age of 37. For years, her contribution to science was overlooked, but that has slowly changed, and her name now graces an asteroid and multiple buildings and awards.
“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 ExoMars 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. The lander and orbiter traveled to Mars together in 2016, paving the way for the rover to follow later. But sadly, the lander’s trip to Mars didn’t end well. While the orbiter made it into Mars’ orbit in 2016, the ESA’s Schiaparelli lander crashed into the red planet’s surface, a disaster that was likely caused by a software bug.
The agency hopes that the Rosalind Franklin mission will be more successful. The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover is currently being built in the UK. The rover will be capable of driving over rough terrain, and will be equipped to drill up to six feet below the surface. It will also have cameras, ground-penetrating radar, and an onboard laboratory to analyze rock samples, looking in particular for signs of life on Mars.
If all goes well with the 2020 launch, the Rosalind Franklin will land on Mars in 2021. The rover’s official landing site will be announced later this year.