In 2021, Rosalind Franklin will set down on the rust-stained sands of Mars before setting off in hunt for chemical building blocks that could indicate the presence of life.
The new name of the European Space Agency (ESA) ExoMars rover was selected to honour a British chemist who contributed to the discovery of DNA’s helical structure, yet never lived to see the recognition her work deserved.
A panel of experts dug through more than 36,000 entries submitted by citizens from the 22 states making up ESA membership before settling on Rosalind Franklin as the perfect name for a rover tasked with searching for complex organic chemicals.
“This name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore. Science is in our DNA, and in everything we do at ESA,” says ESA Director General Jan Woerner.
“Rosalind the rover captures this spirit and carries us all to the forefront of space exploration.”
The ExoMars 2020 Mission will include surface surveillance of Martian soil and rock near the equator in the hope that signs of past or even present biochemistry might be discovered.
The previously unnamed roving laboratory will drill to a depth of up to two metres (seven feet) into the soil and analyse samples with an array of instruments.
While it’s unlikely to dredge up active life forms of any real complexity, it just might find some sort of precursor to the kind of organic chemistry that kicked life off on Earth billions of years ago.
Our search for understanding of life in shared chemistry has its origins in scientific advances made early last century, as we unravelled the mysteries of molecular genetics.
Rosalind Franklin is today a name synonymous with that pioneering period. Her career as a chemist and X-ray crystallographer earned her recognition for unravelling the structures of viruses and the molecular matrix of coal.
But it’s the DNA’s twisted ladder that Franklin has come to be best known for.
It wasn’t always the case. In the years after University of Cambridge’s Francis Crick and James Watson confirmed the molecule’s helical structure based on her X-ray diffraction images, Franklin’s name was at best a footnote.
Watson and Crick famously went on to receive the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine along with a colleague of Franklin’s.
Her passing ultimately excluded her from the prize. Whether she would have received such prestigious recognition at all is a matter of debate.
What does seem to be clear is her role in the landmark discovery was downplayed, occluded by laboratory politics and sexism, depriving her of the recognition her colleagues duly received over the ensuing years.
With more of her story emerging in recent decades, Franklin has come to be celebrated as a great mind of her time.
Having her name bestowed on advanced interplanetary scientific equipment is an honour she almost certainly would have appreciated according to her sister Jenifer Glynn.
“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,” Glynn told the BBC.
The name ‘Rosalind Franklin’ is more of a mouthful than, say, ‘Spirit’ and ‘Opportunity’. But ‘Rosalind the Rover’ is still pretty nice.
And, despite some suggestions, we think it’s best to not call it ‘Rosie’ or ‘Rosy’ – a nickname Franklin herself would almost certainly hate to hear.
An excellent choice of name for the life-seeking ExoMars rover & wouldn’t it be perfect if it was found to have a DNA basis, indicating primitive life travelled between Earth & Mars (or vice versa) on meteorites? 😎
And you just know it’s going to become Rosie the Rover 👍 https://t.co/IRvnTksqDS
— Mark McCaughrean (@markmccaughrean) February 7, 2019
Franklin’s skills and expertise contributed to a revolution in understanding life on Earth. Now her namesake just might do the same thing for life among the stars.