The UK will send Rosalind Franklin to Mars next summer.
A British chemist, X-ray crystallographer, and DNA pioneer, Franklin died in 1958, but her legacy lives on in a planned robotic Mars rover.
Science Minister Chris Skidmore and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake announced the official title of the ExoMars rover this week, following a public naming contest in 2018.
A panel of experts selected the epithet out of a shortlist, whittled down from nearly 36,000 entries submitted across Europe.
“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,” Skidmore said in a statement.
Aside from a 2013 Google Doodle highlighting her contributions to modern science, you’d be forgiven for not knowing Rosalind Elsie Franklin.
Born in London in 1920, she graduated from Newnham College in 1941, and received a PhD from Ohio University four years later. Best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA, her findings were part of the data used to formulate the 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid.
Franklin, who later led pioneering work on the tobacco mosaic and polio viruses, died from ovarian cancer at age 37—four years before James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the DNA double helix.
Watson suggested that Franklin would have ideally ben awarded a prize in chemistry, but the Nobel Committee generally does not make posthumous nominations.
“Rosalind Franklin is one of science’s most influential women, and her part in the discovery of the structure of DNA was truly groundbreaking,” according to Alice Bunn, international director of the 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,” Bunn added.
More than a third of the science instruments used in the ExoMars mission are led by women.
“Just as Rosalind Franklin overcame many obstacles during her career,” Skidmore said, “I hope ‘Rosalind the rover’ will successfully persevere in this exciting adventure, inspiring generations of female scientists and engineers to come.”
As part of the international ExoMars program, led by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian Roscosmos State Corporation, the Rosalind Franklin rover is scheduled to launch in July 2020.
Scientists in November chose Oxia Planum, near the Martian equator, as the landing site for Rosalind.
Upon landing on the Red Planet, the solar-powered, six-wheeled terrain vehicle will begin a seven-month mission to search for existence of past life on Mars.