ESA’s new Mars rover named after woman who unlocked DNA’s structure

7 Feb 2019

Rosalind Franklin in 1955. Image: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

After whittling down thousands of suggestions, ESA has decided to name its future Mars rover after the British chemist and x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin.

In a few years’ time, a new rover will hopefully descend on the surface of Mars with a very human name. The European Space Agency (ESA) announced today (7 February) that its rover for the upcoming ExoMars mission will be named Rosalind, after Rosalind Elsie Franklin.

The name was chosen among 36,000 entries into a competition launched by the UK Space Agency last year, with a panel of experts eventually determining that Franklin’s legacy shall carry on outside of Earth.

Franklin was a pioneering British chemist and X-ray crystallographer who contributed to unravelling the double helix structure of our DNA. Not only that, but she also made enduring contributions to the study of coal, carbon and graphite. She died quite young at the age of 37 in 1958.

“This name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore,” said ESA director general Jan Woerner. “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.”

Rendering of the Rosalind rover with extended arm against a desolate Martian surface.

What the Rosalind rover will look like on Mars. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

Set to reach Mars in 2021, the Rosalind rover will be the first of its kind to both roam the surface of the Red Planet and have the capability of digging deep into its surface. At depths of two metres, the rover drill will be able to take samples of the soil and search for any evidence – past or present – of microbial life.

The data on board Rosalind will be beamed up to the Trace Gas Orbiter overhead, designed to search for tiny amounts of gases in the Martian atmosphere that might be linked to biological or geological activity.

In terms of a landing spot, ESA has already picked out a site called Oxia Planum near the planet’s equator, an area once water-rich, giving hope that remnants of ancient life could have existed there.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic