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Colin Pillinger, 1943-2014

Posted: 8 May 2014

Professor Colin Pillinger, the man behind the UK's Beagle 2 mission to Mars, has died aged 70.

Colin Pillinger
Colin Pillinger at Jodrell Bank in 2009. Photograph by Mike Peel (

Pillinger, who worked at the universities of Bristol and Cambridge before joining the Open University in 1984, was one of Britain's most recognisable space scientists and regularly appeared on television and radio. His research area was planetary science, in which he analysed samples of lunar rock brought back by the crew of Apollo 11, as well as meteorites from Mars.

It was the lure of the red planet that drew Pillinger into proposing and then becoming the Principal Investigator on the Beagle 2 mission, a small £50 million joint ESA/UK lander that piggybacked its way to Mars on the European Space Agency's Mars Express probe. However, contact was lost with Beagle 2 as it entered Mars' atmosphere. It has never been discovered whether the little probe made it to the surface, or burnt up in the atmosphere, nor what the exact cause for its failure was - Pillinger himself wondered whether the Martian atmosphere had been thinner than expected, meaning Beagle 2 would have entered the atmosphere faster than it should have and crashed.

In 2005 Pillinger was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis which led him to be confined to a wheelchair, but in spite of his illness he never stopped working, regularly attending scientific meetings and working on projects such as designing craft to potentially land at the Moon's south pole, as well as ESA's Rosetta mission, which is due to rendezvous with a comet later this year.

He died on 8 May after suffering a brain haemorrhage that left him in a coma. He leaves behind his wife, Judith, and two children.