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New Mars Rover named after former Birkbeck scientist Rosalind Franklin

The British made rover, due to roam the surface of Mars in 2021, has been named after scientist Rosalind Franklin who worked at Birkbeck in the 1950s.

Artist's impression of the ExoMars rover, named after former Birkbeck scientist Rosalind Franklin
Artist's impression of the ExoMars rover. Credit: European Space Agency

The Red Planet is set to be explored by a new rover named after scientist Dr Rosalind Franklin, who did some of her most important work during her time at Birkbeck in the 1950s. The UK made rover, which will roam the surface of Mars in 2021, isn’t the British space industry’s only link to Birkbeck which counts Helen Sharman, the first Briton in Space, amongst its alumni.

The rover is part of the ExoMars programme, a joint endeavour between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian State Space Corporation, Roscosmos. The main aims of ExoMars are to examine the geological environment on Mars and search for evidence of environments that may have once, and perhaps could still, support life. It will also assist in preparing for other robotic missions, including a Mars Sample Return mission, and possible future human exploration. Data from the mission will also provide invaluable input for broader studies of Martian geochemistry, environmental science and exobiology - the search for evidence of life on other planets.

As the first European rover to traverse the surface of Mars, Rosalind Franklin will uniquely drill down to two metres into the Martian surface, allowing the rover’s scientific instruments to sample and analyse the soil, determine its mineral content and composition, and search for evidence of whether past environments could once have harboured life.

‘Rosalind Franklin’ was chosen by a panel of experts from a shortlist submitted by the public, following a naming competition opened in July last year in which nearly 36,000 people responded. Competition entrants that guessed the final name were invited to the naming ceremony at Airbus where they met astronaut Tim Peake and had a tour of the facility.

Dr Franklin is most well known for her contributions to the photography and discovery of the structure of DNA – the double helix. The discovery of the structure was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, but the award only bore the names of Franklin’s male colleagues, Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins.

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

The news comes the year after Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences, where Franklin worked, was recognised for its commitment to gender equality with a Silver Athena SWAN Award.

Professor Carolyn Moores, who heads Birkbeck’s Athena SWAN committee and works in the same field as Franklin, said: “Dr Franklin was a pioneering force in the biological sciences through the discovery of the structure of DNA and her work at Birkbeck’s crystallography laboratory determining the three-dimensional structure of viruses, such as the Tobacco mosaic virus. Naming the rover after Dr Franklin is a fitting tribute to her work, and it will be fascinating to see what new information her namesake will uncover.”

Dr Alice Bunn, International Director of the UK Space Agency said: “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.”

Dr Franklin is remembered at Birkbeck through the Rosalind Franklin Molecular Biology Laboratory, currently headed by Dr Renos Savva, and with the annual Rosalind Franklin Lecture which welcomes inspiring women scientists from around the world to share their research.

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