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Curiosity Mars Rover exploration vehicle on the surface of Mars

ExoMars rover named after DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin

Image credit: James Steidl | Dreamstime.com

The UK-built ExoMars rover has been named Rosalind Franklin, after the UK scientist and the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, in the hope of inspiring the younger female generation to become the scientists and engineers of the future.

The name was revealed by European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake and science minister Chris Skidmore in the ‘Mars Yard’ at Airbus Defence and Space UK in Stevenage – where the rover is being built – after more than 36,000 people submitted ideas of names for the autonomous vehicle. The list was then narrowed down to just 55 names by a panel of experts.

Now dubbed ‘Rosalind the rover’, ESA have plans to send it off to Mars next year, with it due to arrive on the Red Planet in 2021 as part of a pioneering mission to explore the surface.

“The prominent scientist behind the discovery of the structure of DNA will leave her symbolic footprint on Mars in 2021,” the team behind the mission said in its announcement.

Franklin was best known for her ground-breaking work on the molecular structure of DNA, with Peake describing her as “one of the greatest British scientists who unlocked the secrets of human life in terms of understanding DNA”.

After the revelation of the name, Skidmore agreed with Peake, saying: “It is a tremendously fitting tribute that the rover has been named after Rosalind Franklin, as she helped us understand life on Earth and now her namesake will do the same on Mars.

“Just as Rosalind Franklin overcame many obstacles during her career, I hope ‘Rosalind the rover’ will successfully persevere in this exciting adventure, inspiring generations of female scientists and engineers to come.”

“Rosalind Franklin is one of science’s most influential women and her part in the discovery of the structure of DNA was truly ground-breaking,” said Dr Alice Bunn, international director of UK Space Agency. “It’s fitting that the robot bearing her name will search for the building blocks of life on Mars, as she did so on Earth through her work on DNA.”

Over one-third of the instruments used onboard the new rover are being designed and monitored by women.

State-of-the-art extended Mars Yard rover test area at Stevenage site - Airbus DS

“This name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore,” said Johann-Dietrich ‘Jan’ Wörner, director general at ESA. “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.”

Individuals who had put forward Rosalind’s name for the Mars rover were invited to the naming ceremony and they were thrilled about the name having been chosen, expressing the lack of acknowledgment she had received for her work in her lifetime, accentuated by an under-representation of women in STEM careers.

Franklin was central to the discovery of DNA, alongside Crick and Watson, but her part in the work has been historically overlooked. She was not mentioned when Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA and her name was left out of many science books until the 1990s.

However, in recent years, there has been a major effort to recognise her part in the pioneering work.

37-year-old Heather Ramsden, who had entered the winning name to the competition, said: “I felt she was an absolutely inspirational woman in science and that she hadn’t received enough recognition for her work in her lifetime. I felt like this redressed the balance to have her name on a rover on a different planet.”

When E&T talked to a few more competition winners at the event, discussing what could be done to encourage more young women to become interested in careers in science, technology and engineering, it was suggested that more events similar to this Mars rover launch would help show what women in science and engineering can achieve. If Rosalind Franklin can be a scientist, then hopefully young children - particularly females - will aspire to reach similar heights.

Jack Parker, another winner of the naming competition and a University of Warwick Physics student, said: “My physics course is male dominated and I hope that an event like this, naming a robot going to another planet after a woman scientist, will inspire and drive more women to consider a STEM career.”

When arriving to the surface of the Red Planet, the ExoMars rover will hunt for evidence of past life on Mars – drilling into the surface and examining the soil in hopes of finding traces that could have been left by extra-terrestrial life that might once have been there.

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