British astronaut Tim Peake poses with a working prototype of the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars Rover
Stevenage (United Kingdom) (AFP) - A British-made rover that will set off for Mars next year in search for signs of life was named Thursday after DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin.
UK astronaut Tim Peake revealed the name of the first European scavenger of the Red Planet at the Airbus factory just north of London where it was built.
Cambridge-educated Franklin "helped us understand life on Earth and now her namesake will do the same on Mars," UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore said at the unveiling.
The brilliant, but long-unrecognised, 20th century British scientist's name was selected with the help of a public competition in which nearly 36,000 took part.
"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," said Skidmore.
Franklin's work was used to formulate the seminal 1953 hypothesis about the structure of DNA -- the molecule containing an organism's genetic code.
She died of cancer at the age of 37 in 1958.
The three men who were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA four years later did not mention Franklin in their acceptance speeches.
Franklin's contribution to their research remained largely overlooked in science books until the 1990s.
The new rover is planned to land on Mars in 2021 as part of the ExoMars programme which is being conducted jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos.
It follows in the tracks of three similar missions conducted by the United States.
The six-wheeler will be "looking for traces of life beyond Earth," said ESA human and robotic exploration director David Parker.
"Can we find primitive life on the Red Planet?" he asked.
- 'Big moment for Britain' -
The new rover will try to answer that question by drilling two metres (6.5 feet) into the hot planet's surface to sample and analyse the soil.
It will use solar power to drive around with the help of optic sensors. Scientists said it will have a degree of "intelligence" that allows it to make some rudimentary decisions on its own.
The rover will first undergo a series of stern tests to make sure it can survive extreme temperatures and vibrations endured in a journey that takes it more than 55 million kilometres (35 million miles) from Earth.
UK engineers finished building the European space explorer at a delicate political time.
Britain is due to end its 46-year involvement in the European Union at the end of March.
Relations between the two sides are strained and cooperation on major projects such as space exploration is under review.
Britain has already been kicked of the EU's Galileo satellite navigation system because of Brexit.
The rover was built by the British-based defence and space unit of the pan-European Airbus corporation.
Its high-resolution 3D camera was built by University College London's space science lab.
And the University of Leicester in England worked on Rosalind's electronics and data processing panel.
"This is a big moment for British science," science minister Skidmore said.
"Although we are leaving the European union, we are not leaving ESA."