Mars mission scientist Colin Pillinger dies

May 08, 2014
Professor Colin Pillinger, project leader of the British Mars lander Beagle 2 project, speaks to reporters on January 7, 2004, in London

British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger, the driving force behind the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars, died on Thursday at the age of 70, his family said.

The professor, hailed by his colleagues as an inspirational figure with boundless enthusiasm for his subject, suffered a brain haemorrhage on Wednesday.

"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," his family said.

The father of two was taken to a hospital near his home in Cambridge, eastern England, and died peacefully on Thursday afternoon.

"We ask that all respect our privacy at this devastating and unbelievable time," his family said.

Pillinger, who cut a distinctive figure with his mutton-chop whiskers, studied in Wales and began his career at the US space agency NASA, analysing samples of moon rock on the Apollo programme.

But he won fame for his lead role in developing Beagle 2, a British lander that rode piggy-back to Mars aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express in 2003.

Named after Charles Darwin's ship HMS Beagle, it was shaped like a giant pocket watch and opened to reveal solar panels, a robotic arm and research equipment designed to search for signs of life.

It should have landed on the red planet on Christmas Day 2003 but never made contact with Earth. A later investigation concluded that it probably burned up in the atmosphere of Mars.

In the early days and weeks after it disappeared, Pillinger remained relentlessly optimistic and his terrier-like enthusiasm made him a popular figure on British television.

Pillinger was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, and the same year stepped down from his role as head of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute (PSSRI) which he had founded at the Open University.

But while the MS left him with difficulty walking, he continued working in space science and remained hopeful of attempts to get to Mars, saying "we have unfinished business" on the planet.

He had been involved in the ESA's Rosetta project, a mission to orbit and land on a comet which is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

"Colin was driven by science but especially the will to establish whether Mars had, has or could have sustained life," said Professor David Southwood, president of the Royal Astronomical Society and Pillinger's friend.

"That will was expressed in enthusiasm, wit and tireless work and was infectious. He touched many lives and careers. He will be much missed."

Explore further: US, France sign deal for 2016 Mars lander

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

US, France sign deal for 2016 Mars lander

Feb 11, 2014

The United States and France unveiled plans to collaborate on a new Mars mission, two years after NASA withdrew from a European partnership to send a probe and lander to the Red Planet.

India's mission to Mars crosses half-way mark

Apr 09, 2014

India's first mission to Mars successfully crossed the half-way mark on Wednesday, four months after leaving on an voyage to the Red Planet scheduled to take 11 months, the space agency said.

House panel discuses Mars 2021 manned flyby mission

Mar 03, 2014

(Phys.org) —The U.S. House of Representative's Science, Space and Technology Committee has met to discuss the virtues and possibility of asking NASA to assist a private foundation in conducting a manned ...

Recommended for you

Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy discovers new comet

9 hours ago

It's confirmed! Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy just discovered his fifth comet, C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). He found it August 17th using a Celestron C8 fitted with a CCD camera at his roll-off roof ...

Students see world from station crew's point of view

Aug 19, 2014

NASA is helping students examine their home planet from space without ever leaving the ground, giving them a global perspective by going beyond a map attached to a sphere on a pedestal. The Sally Ride Earth ...

Mars deep down

Aug 19, 2014

Scarring the southern highlands of Mars is one of the Solar System's largest impact basins: Hellas, with a diameter of 2300 km and a depth of over 7 km.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nik_2213
not rated yet May 08, 2014
I fear the media back-lash broke his health, though not his soaring spirit...

Don't know if 'urban legend', but I seem to remember reading that NASA's study of Beagle's failure made them realise that Mars' atmosphere has remarkable swings in density. Like when Asian jet-stream 'hangs a left' so Everest's death-zone begins a kilometre lower ?

This being so, NASA's subsequent missions could have shared Beagle's fate had their 'landing sequence' not been tweaked...