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Europe’s 2020 Mars Rover Named for DNA Pioneer Rosalind Franklin

The U.K.-built vehicle is due to launch to the Red Planet next year

An artist's rendering of the European Space Agency's Mars rover, scheduled for launch in 2020 and recently named after English chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin. (ESA)
smithsonian.com

When a U.K.-built rover takes off for Mars in 2020, it will bear the name of Rosalind Franklin, a pioneering British scientist who made vital contributions to our understanding of the structure of DNA.

According to the BBC, a panel selected the name from nearly 36,000 suggestions submitted by the public (“Rovy McRoverFace” was among those that didn’t make the cut). “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,” U.K. Science Minister Chris Skidmore said at an event to reveal the rover's name. European Space Agency astronaut Time Peake stood alongside Skidmore at the event, which was held in the "Mars Yard" testing ground at Airbus Defence and Space's facilities in Stevenage, England.

The rover newly named in Franklin’s honor is part of the ExoMars program, a joint initiative between the European Space Agency and the the Russian State Space Corporation, also known as Roscosmos. (The U.K. was given the task of naming the vehicle because, according to the BBC, the country has “essentially ... put [the] most money into the rover.”) As the first European rover to roll across the surface of Mars, the Rosalind Franklin will drill two meters into the planet to sample and analyze its soil, with the goal of discovering whether past Martian environments could have supported life. A spacecraft known as the Trace Gas Orbiter, which was launched in 2016 and can detect tiny amounts of gases in the planet’s atmosphere, will function as a relay center that sends commands to the rover and downloads its data to Earth.

"This rover will scout the Martian surface equipped with next-generation instruments—a fully-fledged automated laboratory on Mars," Peake said at the naming event. "With it, we are building on our European heritage in robotic exploration, and at the same time devising new technologies."

Born in London in 1920, Franklin is best known for taking detailed x-ray images of DNA's double helix structure at a time when relatively little was known about DNA molecules—and for being largely ignored by the male scientists who built upon her research. She studied physical chemistry at Newnham College, one of only two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, and subsequently spent several years studying the micro-structures of different types of coals and carbons. This work formed the basis of her doctoral thesis, for which she received a PhD from Cambridge, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

In the wake of WWII, Franklin moved to Paris and studied x-ray crystallography, also known as x-ray diffraction analysis, which can pinpoint the position of atoms in a crystal. Franklin mastered the technique, and when she moved back to England, she applied her skills to the examination of biological molecules. Some of her unpublished data, including an x-ray image that clearly revealed DNA’s double helix, was shown without her consent to James Watson and Francis Crick, who were also working to pin down the molecular structure of DNA. Watson and Crick used their own data and Franklin’s photograph to create a model for the building blocks of life.

“Watson and Crick never told Franklin that they had seen her materials, and they did not directly acknowledge their debt to her work when they published their classic announcement in Nature that April,” the U.S. National Library of Medicine writes. “Crick later admitted that Franklin was two steps away from realizing the correct structure in the spring of 1953.”

Watson, Crick and Franklin’s colleague Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel prize for their contributions to the study of DNA. Franklin, who had died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37, was not included in the honor, as Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously. It would be unfair, however, to reduce Franklin’s legacy to that of a slighted woman thwarted by sexism and an untimely death. After her work on DNA, she conducted similarly groundbreaking research into the structure of plant viruses, adding to the list of accomplishments she had achieved throughout her career.

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

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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