Planetary Scientist, Professor Colin Pillinger, has passed away at the age of 70 after suffering a brain haemorrhage. He had been suffering for several years with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Pillinger worked for the Open University based in Milton Keynes. He gained fame for being the principal investigator of the British Mars small landing probe Beagle 2 which was an attempt to find life on Mars. The mainly privately funded mission, which was an add-on to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express orbiting mission of 2003, gained such a fanfare that it encouraged a new interest in spaceflight within the United Kingdom. Pillinger was wise enough to engage popular figures in British popular culture (Alex James of rock group Blur, the modern artist Damien Hirst etc) to take part in the project. Many took it to be a sign that the nation truly was back in the space race. In the event, sadly the mission was a “Great British space failure” as the last that was ever seen of the probe was its final separation from its carrier before its planned atmospheric entry and landing on Mars.
Due to a lack of funding for the landing mission, the post separation pre-landing telemetry had been left off so there was little indication of the exact cause of the failure. Professor Pillinger was subsequently criticised in an ESA report for his management of the project. Nevertheless, Pillinger was subsequently awarded the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his work in 2003.
Pillinger’s mutton chop sideburns and broad west country accents made him seem more like a dairy farmer than a planetary scientist which he, in fact, also was in his spare time. However, Pillinger had an extensive scientific experience including being on the NASA team that examined the first rocks returned by Apollo 11 and was part of the group that discovered suspected biological artefacts in meteorite rocks from Mars in 1989.
While not everything went right for him, Professor Colin Pillinger’s enthusiasm for space and British spaceflight will be missed. We give our condolences to his family and friends.