By Jamie Harris, Press Association Science Technology Reporter
The UK-built ExoMars robot that will set out to find evidence of life on Mars has been named after British scientist Rosalind Franklin.
The name was revealed by astronaut Tim Peake and science minister Chris Skidmore at an event in Stevenage on Thursday as part of a public competition launched in July last year.
More than 36,000 people submitted ideas in the competition, which were narrowed down by a panel of experts.
Maj Peake said: “It’s an important name because Rosalind Franklin was one of the great British scientists who unlocked the secrets of human life in terms of understanding DNA and the double helix, and ExoMars is so exciting because we’re searching for life and the possibility that life evolved on Mars.”
The Rosalind Franklin rover will embark on a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian space agency Roscosmos, planned to launch in summer 2020 with the aim of understanding whether life exists or ever existed on the Red Planet.
Built and designed in the UK, more than 100 scientists across the country have worked on the project, investigating a number of essential aspects such as selecting the best landing location on Mars.
The six-wheeled rover, built by Airbus, is said to be the first of its kind to travel across the Martian surface and drill about two metres into the surface to see if any possible signs of life are buried underground.
It will aim to see as far back as four billion years, exploring the bottom of a Mars ocean that no longer exists.
The first part of the mission was launched in 2016, with the arrival of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which sets out to “sniff” the Martian atmosphere and look for evidence of methane, which may be an indication of active life on or below the planet’s surface.
“There were many very colourful entries – Rover McRoverface I think at one point was one of the most popular names, but of course I think Rosalind Franklin is a much more fitting tribute to a great British scientist,” Maj Peake added.
Mr Skidmore used the event to reaffirm that the UK will remain a part of the ESA.
“The European Space Agency is a real asset to the work – the UK is a proud founding member and will remain committed into the future,” he said.
“Although we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving ESA.”