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Scientist Colin Pillinger passes away

Scientist Colin Pillinger passes away

TRIBUTES have been paid to the well-known space scientist Colin Pillinger who has passed away at the age of 70.

Professor Pillinger will be best remembered for his Beagle 2 project which involved sending a small probe to Mars. Unfortunately the project was to end in disaster in 2003 after the sophisticated probe disappeared during the landing stage.

Beagle 2 was Britain’s first interplanetary spacecraft and was built as a result of a remarkable effort by the former professor of planetary science at the Open University. Not only did he have to convince the European Space Agency that they should allow his probe to “piggyback” on their Mars Express mission to place a satellite in orbit round the Red Planet, but he also had to go out and find the £30m to fund his dream.

His fund-raising efforts included organising drinks receptions for aerospace bosses, putting on displays at the Chelsea Flower Show and even recruiting the efforts of rock band Blur.

The compact probe — named Beagle after the Royal Navy ship in which Charles Darwin had travelled — was designed to analyse rocks on Mars in bid to establish if life had ever existed on the planet.

Following the disastrous end to the project, Dr. Pillinger did not escape criticism from the commission which had investigated what had gone wrong. However, he always refused to see the project as a complete failure (see below).

Born in Kingswood, South Gloucestershire, the young Pillinger had studied chemistry at Swansea University. He once revealed in an interview that he had originally been a disaster as a science student: “Every time I mixed two solutions together, the results blew up”. But he went on to become an expert in the spectrographic analysis of rocks — leading him to be recruited as one of the people who was asked to study some of the first samples brought back from the moon by Apollo astronauts.

The professor, who appeared to fit the public’s perception of the typical boffin, was never one to shy away from the media — even appearing once on the TV show Top Gear taking on two other scientists to see who could do a wheel burn out in a souped-up car. He was also a popular conference and after-dinner speaker. 

In recent years, he had been suffering from multiple sclerosis. 

Professor Pillinger passed away at Addenbrooke’s Hospital where he had been in a coma since suffering a brain haemorrhage at his home in Cambridge. He is survived by his wife Judith and children Shusanah and Nicolas.

The many tributes were led by the chief executive of the UK Space Agency, Dr. David Parker, who said: “The UK has lost a true visionary. Professor Pillinger was a prominent and influential figure in the UK space sector. He inspired young people to dream big dreams.”

To see an excerpt from a conference speech given by Professor Pillinger, click here.

To see how Professor Pillinger launched his book My Life On Mars — The Beagle 2 Diaries, click here.

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