The European Space Agency’s new Mars rover will be named after British scientist Rosalind Franklin, who contributed to the discovery of DNA’s double-helix.
Astronaut Tim Peake launched a campaign in July asking citizens of ESA member states to submit name suggestions online. After receiving nearly 36,000 responses, a panel selected Franklin as the rover’s namesake.
Being that the rover—built at the Airbus factory in Stevenage, England—will head to Mars in 2020 to search for life, it’s fitting that the machinery is named after the scientist who helped discover the shape of what life’s made of.
Franklin first used X-ray diffraction methods to study DNA as a research fellow at King’s College, London in 1951. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, she discovered the density of DNA and established that it existed in a helical conformation. Her work laid the foundation for James Watson and Francis Crick to suggest DNA’s double-helix structure in 1953.
Crick, Watson, and Maurice Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel Prize for their work, but since Franklin died of cancer in 1958 at the age of 37, she could not be considered for the award. This left many to believe she was not given the recognition she deserved, says BBC.
“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,” Franklin’s sister, Jenifer Glynn, told BBC.
“She could never have imagined that over 60 years later there would be a rover sent to Mars bearing her name, but somehow that makes this project even more special.”
The rover, previously known as ExoMars, is scheduled to launch in summer 2020 and land on Mars in March 2021. The six-wheeled robot is equipped with a drill that can reach up to 2 meters underground in its search for evidence of microbial life.