Obituary: Colin Pillinger (1943 – 2014)

By Doug Millard, curator of Space and Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs. 

Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist, has died age 70.

Pillinger, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, began his career at Nasa, analysing samples of moon rock on the Apollo programme, and made headlines in 1989 when he and colleagues at the Open University found traces of organic material in a Mars meteorite that had fallen to Earth.

But he is best known for his remarkable and dogged battle to launch Beagle 2 Mars lander, named after HMS Beagle, the vessel that carried Charles Darwin during two of the expeditions that would lead to his theory of natural selection.

A model of the pioneering but ill-fated probe, designed to sniff for signs of life, can be found in the Exploring Space gallery of the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The instruments, such as its camera, microscope, robot arms, mass spectrometer, gas chromatography, drill, and electronics had to fit inside the a compact 33 kg saucer which would unfurl on the surface of the Red Planet .

Although the craft was successfully deployed from the Mars Express Orbiter in December 2003, on which it was piggybacked, confirmation of a successful landing on Christmas Day never came and it became another of the many failed Mars missions.

But it does tell you a great deal about Pillinger’s remarkable personality. He made it happen through a mix of persistence, personality, endless lobbying and show-business flair, enlisting the help of half of the Britpop band Blur (who composed the call sign) and the artist Damian Hirst (who created the spots on the instrument’s camera calibration card).

Beagle 2 did succeed brilliantly in its secondary and perhaps more significant role: enthusing the British about space. It was Colin perhaps more than anyone else who showed the full value and importance of space exploration, and how it fits with that very human capacity to dream.

His wife Judith, and children Shusanah and Nicolas, issued a statement: “It is with profound sadness that we are telling friends and colleagues that Colin, whilst sitting in the garden yesterday afternoon, suffered a severe brain haemorrhage resulting in a deep coma.  He died peacefully this afternoon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, without regaining consciousness. “

British science has lost a star.

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