Colin Pillinger, the British planetary scientist best known for his involvement with the Beagle 2 Mars mission, has died age 70, his family have said.
Professor Pillinger died in Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge after suffering a brain haemorrhage in his home and falling into a deep coma.
His family have described his death as “devastating and unbelievable” in a statement. Pillinger, who was awarded the CBE in 2003, is survived by his wife Judith and a son and a daughter.
Pillinger’s first job was with the US space agency Nasa where he analysed samples of lunar rock returned to Earth by the Apollo 11 astronauts.
He later became a professor at the Open University where he convinced the European Space Agency to include a lander on their 2 June 2003 Mars Express mission.
The Beagle 2 was named after HMS Beagle, the boat that carried Charles Darwin during two of the expeditions that would lead to his theory of natural selection.
“HMS Beagle was the ship that took Darwin on his voyage around the world in the 1830s and led to our knowledge about life on Earth making a real quantum leap. We hope Beagle 2 will do the same thing for life on Mars,” said Pillinger.
Unexpected support for the first British-built interplanetary spacecraft came from the rock band Blur (who also wrote a song that would act as the call-sign for the craft) while a last-minute £5 million grant from then-science minister Lord Sainsbury ultimately saved the project.
Although the craft succesfully deployed from the Mars Express Orbiter in December 2003, confirmation of a successful landing never came and an inquiry into the craft's failure outlined a number of possible scenarios, noting that failed Mars missions are common.