Rover which could discover life on Mars named at ceremony in Stevenage
- Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO
The name of a space rover that could reveal life on Mars was announced at an event in Stevenage today.
The ExoMars rover will bear the name of DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin after an unveiling by astronaut Tim Peake at the Airbus’ Mars Yard in Argyle Way.
The six-wheel rover is designed to manage the difficult terrain of the red planet, and is equipped with instruments and a drill to search for evidence of past or present life.
Parts for the European Space Agency mission, which is set to take place next year, have been built all over the continent, but the rover itself has been built entirely in Stevenage.
Peake – who was the first British ESA astronaut and is famous for his time on the International Space Station – praised the work of Airbus and their facilities.
“This facility is absolutely key because the Airbus site in Stevenage was the prime builders of the rover,” he said.
“It’s an international collaboration and there’s a number of different elements to this mission and to this rover, but the platform itself, the rover, which has a very demanding task of managing the surface and integrating all these other systems, is absolutely vital to the mission.”
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Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore, pressed the button alongside Peake to unveil the Rosalind Franklin name.
He was equally impressed with the facilities, telling the Comet: “I am a local MP down in Bristol and Airbus is very close to me there, the aerospace side, and they’ve always said come up to Stevenage and see what we do with space.
“It is remarkable. When you look at this testing facility, the level of detail they’ve gone to right down to the grains of sand being identical to that on Mars is impressive.
“I think it really goes to show what a world leading site looks like.
“You have this manufacturing and aerospace tradition here and it’s great now to see the Stevenage site being at the cutting edge of that.”
The rocket that will send the Franklin Rover into space is set to launch in July or August 2020, with engineers at Airbus on target to finish the rover at the end of July.
Touchdown on the surface of Mars will take place in March 2021 if there are no delays.
Parts from across Europe and Canada are being bought to Stevenage, with the rover being put together in a special cleanroom.
Astronaut Peake is excited about what the Franklin Rover may help scientists discover, saying: “Today is really important because what it represents is one of the final stages of putting together this really audacious mission.
“The surface has been particularly chosen to be an area where we know there was once liquidation on Mars, there are ancient rocks exposed and we stand the best chances at this location of being able to find any organic molecules.
“It would have a profound effect. We don’t know if life exists elsewhere in the universe, but if life does happen to exist on our nearest neighbouring planet, then the implications for life existing elsewhere is huge.”
Minister Skidmore was in agreement, adding: “I think the project is incredibly important. The fact that this rover has far greater capabilities to be able to drill down into the surface of Mars, move autonomously, be able to move twice as far in a day so the data that will be collected will be incredible.”
The name Rosalind Franklin was chosen after 36,000 responded to a public call by the ESA.
In 1952, X-ray crystallographer Franklin was investigating the atomic arrangement of DNA, creating images for analysis.
It was these images that allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to decipher its double-helix shape, allowing researchers to understand the ‘genetic code of life’.
Franklin died in 1957 from ovarian cancer, aged just 37. Crick, Watson, and Maurice Wilkins, received the 1962 Nobel Prize for the breakthrough, but Franklin’s death meant she could not be considered for the award.
Her sister, Jenifer Glynn attending the ceremony, as did Heather Ramsden and University of Warwick physicist Jack Parker who were just two of many who nominated the Franklin name when the public call was announced.
Speaking to the Comet, Jack was delighted that she will now be recognised for her scientific achievements.
“She was an amazing woman in a time when people really didn’t want women to succeed,” he said.
“It’s very sad that she didn’t receive the recognition at the time, but now we can right some of those injustices. She can be remembered as the amazing person that she was at a time when people didn’t want her to be amazing.
Heather added: “Her contribution to science is absolutely fabulous and I felt it was incredibly fitting that her work towards the discovery of structural DNA linked with what the mission is trying to do, looking for life on Mars.
She is an absolutely inspirational woman. I felt that previously her contribution hadn’t been acknowledged as it might have been and it’s incredibly important to me that we recognise her as an early woman in science.”