British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger, was at his home in Cambridge when he suffered a brain haemorrhage and fell into a deep coma. Prof Pillinger’s family said he died peacefully, at age 70, in Addenbrooke’s Hospital without regaining consciousness. His death was “devastating and unbelievable”, his family said in a statement.
Prof Pillinger had played a critical role in raising the profile of the British space programme and had inspired young people to dream big dreams. The Science Minister David Willetts called him a “delightful man and a free spirit.” And added: “His vision of space exploration and his dedication to it inspired the nation.”
It’s important to note that Colin’s contribution to planetary science goes back to working on Moon samples from Apollo, as well as his work on meteorites, but Prof Pillinger was best known as the driving force behind Beagle-2, which was built to search for life on Mars.
The little craft was carried piggyback to the Red Planet on a European satellite, but vanished without trace after being dropped off to make its landing. While we still don’t know for certain what happened to Beagle-2, the project was a turning point in bringing together the space science and industrial communities in the UK – which didn’t used to speak with one voice. Beagle-2 wasn’t built in Colin’s backyard: it was the product of UK brains and hard-work in many companies and universities.
Prof Mark Sims, the mission manager on the 2003 Beagle-2 probe, recalled: “Colin was a top-rate scientist. You might not have agreed with him but he always went for what he believed in. It was a privilege to have known him and worked with him, both as a friend and colleague.”
Prof Pillinger continued to push space agencies to complete what he called “unfinished business on Mars,” and was sometimes critical of the delays that have seen Europe’s follow-up rover mission, ExoMars, slip back to 2018.
With colleagues at the Open University, where he headed the Department of Physical Sciences until 2005, he was keenly looking forward to this year’s Rosetta mission. The pan-European venture plans to put a lander on a comet this November, and an OU instrument will help investigate the object’s chemistry.
At the age of 62, Prof Pillinger was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which made it difficult for him to walk. He said the illness would not diminish his research, and his motorised buggy was often seen racing around scientific conferences.
“Bloody-minded,” was how he described his own approach to life. “If I ever said as a child ‘I can’t do this’, my father would always say, ‘There’s no such thing as can’t’.”
Prof Pillinger was married to Judith with whom he had two children, Shusanah and Nicolas.
Read more and watch a video of Prof Pillinger at www.bbc.com
Posted by: Soderman/SSERVI Staff