The European Space Agency will name its new Exomars rover Rosalind Franklin, after the DNA pioneer, it has announced.

The lander will arrive on the red planet in 2021, as part of a pioneering mission to explore the surface.

“The prominent scientist behind the discovery of the structure of DNA will leave her symbolic footprint on Mars in 2021,” the team behind the mission said in its announcement.

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When it arrives, the ExoMars rover will hunt for evidence of past life on Mars. It will drill into the surface and examine the soil in hope of finding traces that could have been left by alien life that might once have been there.

The name was decided by a panel of experts from a list of possibilities suggested by the public. The naming competition opened in July and saw nearly 36,000 people respond.

“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,” said Alice Bunn, international director at the UK Space Agency.

“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.”

More than a third of the instruments used on board the new rover are being led by women.

“This name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore,” said Johann-Dietrich ‘Jan’ Wörner, director general at the European Space Agency. ”Science is in our DNA, and in everything we do at ESA. Rosalind the rover captures this spirit and carries us all to the forefront of space exploration.”

Rosalind Franklin was central to the discovery of DNA, alongside Crick and Watson, but her part in the work has been historically overlooked. She was not mentioned when Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA, and her name was left out of many science books until the 1990s – but in recent years there has been a major effort to recognise her part in the pioneering work.

The lander has already had its landing site chosen ahead of its touchdown in 2021. The area is thought to have once been covered in a large lake, and scientists hope that signatures of life might be lying there.

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