Why Europe is Naming Their Next Mars Rover After Biologist Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin, a groundbreaking pioneer in the science of DNA, is being honored with a spacecraft in her name, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced on February 7, 2019. This gifted researcher, responsible for critical insights into the structure of DNA, is finally being given the recognition she deserves after a lifetime dedicated to science and the nature of life itself.

Formerly known as the ExoMars rover, the vehicle is scheduled for takeoff in July 2020, as one of a pair of robotic explorers. After journeying to the Red Planet, touchdown will take place in March 2021. After landing, the remote laboratories will begin their search for the building blocks of life on Mars, similar to those that most fascinated the under-appreciated human explorer, born in 1920.

“Rosalind Franklin is one of science’s most influential women, and her part in the discovery of the structure of DNA was truly ground-breaking… 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,” said Alice Bunn, International Director, UK Space Agency.

The Rosalind Franklin rover (front) will explore the Martian surface, while the Russian stationary surface science platform remains stationary (background). Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab

If successful, this first-ever Mars rover from the ESA will touch down at the Oxia Planum, a plain just north of the equator, This region possesses an intriguing geology which could provide evidence, one way or another, in the search for ancient life on Mars. Astronomers believe this region (like the nearby valley Mawrth Vallis) was once wet, fed by channels of water which led to the area. If true, this would make it one of the better places to search for evidence of primitive life on Mars. Such records could be up to four billion years old.

Rosalind Franklin, as she may have seen seen conducting her world-class research. Image credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, from the collection of Jenifer Glynn (CC).

“Mawrth Vallis is a scientifically unique site, but Oxia Planum offers an additional safety margin for entry, descent and landing, and for traversing the terrain to reach the scientifically interesting sites that have been identified from orbit,” said Jorge Vago, ExoMars 2020 project scientist.

The ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars program, of which Rosalind Franklin is a vital piece, is a series of missions designed to help answer the question of whether or not life ever existed (or possibly, still exists today) on the Martian landscape.

The Rosalind Franklin rover will travel around the immediate area, occasionally exploring as far as two meters (seven feet) beneath the surface of the planet, using the ExoMars drill. Once beneath the Martian surface, this instrument will conduct experiments, and extract samples of Martian crust. Meanwhile, a Russian-made surface science platform will remain stationary at base camp, studying the geology and chemistry of the area. Data from the pair of vehicles will be relayed via the Trace Gas Orbiter, which arrived above Mars in 2016.

Because of the low temperatures and high amounts of radiation, together with the lack of liquid water at its surface, many researchers believe the best place to look for life on Mars, past or present, is under the surface of the ground.

The ExoMars drill, which will penetrate the surface of Mars, searching for signs of past or present life. Image credit: European Space Agency (ESA)

The solar-powered Rosalind Franklin will be equipped with artificial intelligence, allowing it to make certain autonomous decisions, based on data from its optical sensors. Onboard the rover, the PanCam instrument from UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory is a 3D camera, designed to search for tell-tale signs of life.

The quest for life on Mars by the robotic pair would likely have fascinated the human Rosalind Franklin. The British scientist attended Newnham College in Cambridge in 1938, where she finished with a titular degree in 1941. At the time, women were not allowed to earn full degrees. Four years later, she was awarded a PhD from Ohio University.

During her career, Franklin developed pioneering insight into the structure and makeup of DNA, RNA, graphite, coal, and viruses.

An English Heritage blue plaque for Rosalind Franklin at Donovan Court, Drayton Gardens, Chelsea. Image credit: Gareth E Kegg/Wikipedia (CC).

Franklin became best-known for her work in X-ray diffraction images of DNA, research (including groundbreaking photographs) later used by Crick and Watson in their famous paper describing the structure of DNA. She also led the study of the gene structures of tobacco and polio viruses.

A panel of judges selected the name Rosalind Franklin for the spacecraft, from a collection of 36,000 suggestions from the general public. Those people who suggested the winning name were invited to the naming ceremony held in Stevenage, England with British astronaut Tim Peake.

In 1958, Franklin passed away from ovarian cancer, at the age of 37. Four years later, Watson and Crick won the Noble Prize for their announcement of the double helix structure of DNA. This highest award in science can only be awarded to living people, but the winning team did not even mention her work in their acceptance speeches. Much of her research remained largely unmentioned until the 1990's.

Over one-third of the science instruments on the rover will be analyzed by teams of scientists led by women.