British scientist Colin Pillinger dies at 70

09 May 2014


British scientist Colin Pillinger, known for his ability to combine research with a dash of show business, has died. Pillinger combined inventiveness, determination and pluck, and earned the respect of his peers via his research on Apollo moon samples and meteorites.

The planetary scientist, the pioneering spirit behind the UK's Mars lander Beagle 2, died following a brain hemorrhage at his home in Cambridge. He was 70.

The professor, who was awarded the CBE in 2003, breathed his lat in a hospital.

For his family his death was ''devastating and unbelievable''.

Pillinger was most famous for the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars, which was supposed to land on the planet on Christmas Day 2003 and start searching for life, but vanished without a trace.

The probe, however, was last seen heading for Mars on 19 December after separating from its European Space Agency mothership Mars Express.

Pillinger later spoke of his frustration at the failed probe, adding there was nothing that should not have worked.

Earlier, when he and his colleagues at the Open University reported in 1989 that they had found organic material in a Mars meteorite, characteristic of the remains of living things, the announcement came with a tone of near-embarrassment. NASA too made a similar claim seven years later, with a fair bit of razzmatazz, which immediately came to be hailed as the discovery of the century.

According to commentators, the British boffin might have realised the importance of engaging with the public from this and went on to demonstrate his ability to combine show business with science with remarkable panache.

When it came to his dream of creating a British Mars lander, he showed the press how compact his Beagle 2 probe was, by wheeling a replica through the Open University car park in a supermarket trolley.

Pallab Ghosh of the BBC who had keenly followed Pillinger's pet project, writes that the Beagle-2 spacecraft was cheap and cheerful, but it was not a joke. The craft brilliantly engineered by Colin and his team was ahead of its time, according to Ghosh.

Many of the Beagle's ideas have been incorporated in the next European landing mission to the Red Planet, called ExoMars.

Although Colin's 2003 probe failed to make it to Mars, his efforts served to inspire a new generation to the wonders of space.

''I shall miss him but I shall remember him as someone who reached for the stars and persuaded those around him that they could, too' writes Ghosh.

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