Professor Colin Pillinger obituary: Scientist who became the public face of ‘Beagle 2’, the unsuccessful British mission to land a spacecraft on Mars

He wanted to answer the question, ‘Are we alone  in the universe?’ He was convinced that we aren’t

Martin Childs
Friday 09 May 2014 16:45

Colin Pillinger was a world-class planetary scientist, best known for being the public face of Beagle 2, the daring 2003 mission to search for life on Mars. Although the mission was ultimately unsuccessful and received much criticism and ridicule, Pillinger was adamant that the mission was not a failure.

With his bushy sideburns, long hair, tinted glasses, Bristolian accent and cheery disposition, Pillinger looked like the archetypal boffin – but he was defiantly not one of those scientists who spout theories that only fellow-scientists would understand; instead, he had a passion for wanting to engage with the man in the street. He once explained, “I’m not aiming at the next Stephen Hawking. I’m aiming for the kid at the back of the class. That’s the sort of kid I was.”

Dr David Parker, UK Space Agency Head, said he played a critical role in raising the profile of the British space programme and inspired “young people to dream big dreams”.

Born in the working class district of Kingswood, on the borders of Bristol, in 1943, he was the second child of Alfred, a manual worker for the Gas Board, and Florence, a housewife. Inspired by his father, who brought him up to solve problems rather than accept defeat, he attended Kingswood Grammar School; he claimed “not to be academic” but “found science easy”. He used to get to school early in order to play football with his friends and would play at every given opportunity. He graduated with a BSc and a doctorate in chemistry from University College of Swansea, before becoming a research fellow at Cambridge.

Pillinger’s career began in 1969 at Nasa, where he analysed samples of moon rock brought back from the Apollo 11 manned lunar landing, and he worked on all the following Apollo missions. The Beagle 2 project, named by his wife to evoke Darwin’s HMS Beagle, was inspired by his work analysing lunar and Martian meteorite samples, which in his opinion (and others’) indicated evidence of micro-organism remnants – and thus, perhaps, evidence of life on Mars.

Pillinger and his Open University team developed technology which enabled them to take much smaller samples and analyse them in far greater detail. Beagle 2, a robot designed to search for life, was eventually the size of a car wheel, weighing 30kg and containing, among other things, a mass spectrometer, an optical microscope, binocular “eyes”, a rock-sampling drill and a telescopic “mole” with which to drill up to 1.5 metres under adjacent rocks.

On 2 June 2003, in collaboration with the University of Leicester, Beagle 2 was launched piggy-back on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express probe on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. Scheduled to land on Mars on Christmas Day, it vanished without trace. It was last spotted heading for Mars on 19 December, after separating from its ESA mother ship. It is believed to have crashed into a crater on the planet. Some of the team continue to pore over stills sent by Nasa, looking for evidence.

The reason for the failure was never determined. An inquiry was launched, which apportioned some of the blame on Pillinger’s management of the project, as well as pointing to the fact that the team was too small. Pillinger reiterated that he was just the “front man” and that everyone involved was a specialist. Beagle 2’s failure was not unique, as of the 44 Mars missions, only 18 have succeeded in achieving their aims and objectives.

Pillinger continued to push space agencies to complete what he called “unfinished business on Mars”, and he was sometimes critical of the delays that have seen Europe’s follow-up mission, ExoMars, slip back to 2018.

Five years after the mission part of Beagle 2’s equipment was recognised as potentially being able to diagnose TB faster than ever before. Pillinger had received funding from the Wellcome Trust medical charity on the understanding that their equipment, a mass spectrometer, which can identify and quantify unknown compounds, would then be applied to medical problems. Thanks to its lightness and robustness, it could withstand the extreme cold of Mars and the extreme heat of being sterilised.

The Trust and the OU researchers, led by Dr Geraint “Taff” Morgan, realised it could be utilised in diagnosing tuberculosis, which killed 1.8 million in 2008. Tests are still ongoing.

Although offered large sums of money to work in the US, Pillinger remained patriotic. He became a professor in interplanetary science at the Open University in 1991, then headed the Department of Physical Sciences until 2005. He was keenly awaiting this year’s ESA Rosetta mission and Nasa’s planned return to the moon, perhaps using Beagle 2 technology to help detect water.

Pillinger wanted to answer the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” and was convinced that life on Earth was not unique. “I think it would be incredibly arrogant of us to believe we are the pinnacle of evolution,” he said, adding that with “hydrogen being the most abundant element in the universe, and carbon, which makes up life, being the fourth, oxygen the third and water the most abundant compound, it must stand to reason that… a form of life must’ve occurred somewhere else.”

In a remarkably varied life Pillinger also ran a dairy farm, researched racehorse doping, analysed diamonds, and was thrilled to appear on Top of the Pops, playing and singing on the football song “Jerusalem” in 2000 as part of the ensemble group Fat Les, alongside his friend Alex James of Blur and numerous other celebrities. Although he described himself as “a disaster as a science student”, he received many awards, including the Space Achievement Medal and Arthur C Clarke Award for public awareness of space research. In 2004, Asteroid 15614 was named after him. “A piece of Professor Pillinger now moves between Mars and Jupiter,” a Nasa scientist remarked.

In 2005 Pillinger was diagnosed with MS, but carried on working, using a motorised buggy to get around. He was at his home in Cambridge when he suffered a brain haemorrhage.

He is survived by his children and his wife, Judith, whom he met while working in the same laboratory, and who he described as his “rock, without whom I would not have had the success I had.”

Colin Pillinger, scientist: born Kingswood, Gloucestershire 9 May 1943; CBE 2003; married Judith Hay (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 7 May 2014.

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