Colin Pillinger

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Colin Pillinger
Colin Pillinger.jpg
Born (1943-05-09)9 May 1943
Kingswood, Gloucestershire, England
Died 7 May 2014(2014-05-07) (aged 70)
Cambridge, UK[1]
Fields Planetary science
Institutions Open University
University of Cambridge
Alma mater University College of Swansea
Known for Beagle 2 Mars lander
Analyzing Apollo lunar samples[2]
Notable awards Michael Faraday Prize (2011)

Colin Trevor Pillinger, CBE FRS FRAS FRGS (/ˈpɪlɪnər/; 9 May 1943 – 7 May 2014) was an English planetary scientist. He was a founding member of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute at Open University in Milton Keynes,[3] he was also the principal investigator for the British Beagle 2 Mars lander project, and worked on a group of Martian meteorites.[4][5][6]

Early life[edit]

Pillinger was born on 9 May 1943 in Kingswood, South Gloucestershire, just outside Bristol.[7] His father, Alfred, a manual worker for the Gas Board, and his mother, Florence (née Honour), also had a daughter who was six years older than Colin.[2][7] He attended Kingswood Grammar School, and later graduated with a BSc and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from University College of Swansea (now Swansea University).[7] He said of himself, "I was a disaster as a science student".[8]


Academic career[edit]

After graduating from University, Pillinger then became a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Earth Science at Cambridge University, and then a Senior Research Fellow at The Open University (1984–90). He became a Professor in Interplanetary Science at The Open University in 1991.[9]

Pillinger's first job was working for NASA. He was involved in the Apollo space programme and ESA's Rosetta mission [10] and analysed the lunar samples brought back by Apollo 11.[2]

Between 1996 and 2000, Pillinger was made Gresham Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, a position once held by Sir Christopher Wren.[11] Pillinger said of his appointment as Professor of Astronomy:[12]

"As an organic chemist, turned geologist, turned astronomer who uses isotopic analyses to unravel the origins of life, our planet, the solar system and the stars, I hope I have something in common with the versatile men who were early Gresham Professors. The subjects which I research already enjoy popular interest; by combining them to produce a story of life told from the genealogy of its elements, my aim is to appeal to the widest possible audience, using an interdisciplinary approach to attempt to unravel the time-honoured puzzle, where do I come from?"

Pillinger is credited with inspiring many people to take an interest in space science, particularly in Britain. He was responsible for training and supporting a large number of experts in the field as well as helping to unite the space science and industrial communities in the UK. Pillinger worked as a conference and after-dinner speaker for the JLA agency.[13]

In 2000, a main belt asteroid was named 15614 Pillinger after Colin Pillinger.[14] In 2003, Pillinger was appointed a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for his services to Higher Education and to Science.[15] Pillinger played a role in the Philae lander that was part of the Rosetta mission which successfully made its rendez-vous with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014. In particular he was an advocate of the idea of deploying the lander Philae to conduct scientific experiments in situ, and was instrumental in getting the Ptolemy device accepted as part of the science payload.[16]

Beagle 2[edit]

Replica of Beagle 2 in the London Science Museum.

Pillinger was the principal investigator for the failed Beagle 2 Mars lander project, part of European Space Agency's (ESA) 2003 Mars Express mission. It was Pillinger's wife who thought of the Beagle 2 name for the project, based on Charles Darwin's ship the HMS Beagle.[2] The reason for the failure of the mission has not been determined, though a number of possible explanations were given by David Southwood, ESA's Director of Science. The commission inquiring into the mission's failure, however, apportioned blame towards Pillinger's management of the overall project as a contributing factor in the failure.[17] In response, in his autobiography, Professor Pillinger highlighted a lack of support from key figures at ESA as a factor.

Pillinger enlisted British rock band Blur to write a song to be Beagle 2's call sign back home. It was to be broadcast as soon as Beagle 2 began work on the surface of Mars. He also persuaded the artist Damien Hurst to provide a spot painting to use in calibrating the spacecraft's camera.[18] At the outset of their involvement, Blur bassist Alex James remarked:

"The technology's there, the intelligence is there; the only thing not there is the funding. It's a million pounds a kilo to Mars. It's 1999: we should be building fucking spaceships but there's this inbuilt nihilistic vision of, 'What's the fucking point?' ... I can't think of anything better to do than send a spaceship to Mars. It's exciting. Damien's going to put some spots on the spaceship to calibrate it... And if Colin discovers evidence of life, it'll probably be the biggest discovery ever made. Isn't that brilliant?"[19]

In 2014, a science destination for the Mars rover Opportunity on the western rim of Endeavour Crater was named Pillinger Point after Colin Pillinger, in commemoration of his enthusiasm for the Beagle 2 mission.[20]

The UK Space Agency on 16 January 2015 indicated that Beagle 2 had indeed reached the surface of Mars on 25 December 2003, but had failed to deploy fully.[21] Images taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) identified clear evidence for the lander and convincing evidence for key entry and descent components on the surface of Mars within the expected landing area of Isidis Planitia (an impact basin close to the equator).

Personal life[edit]

Pillinger's widow, Judith, is also a scientist. They met when working in the same laboratory and had two children, a son, Nicolas Joseph and a daughter, Shusanah Jane,[2][7] who in 2015 became the first solo British woman to complete the Race Across America ultra-endurance cycle race.[22] After experiencing difficulty with walking for two years, Pillinger was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in May 2005.[23] He owned a dairy farm, but his illness prevented him from doing physical work on the farm.[2] Pillinger died two days before his 71st birthday at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge on 7 May 2014, after suffering a brain haemorrhage and falling into a coma.[24]

Pillinger in popular culture[edit]

Beagle 2 has been mentioned in Hollywood films Transformers: The Movie and Pillinger's work on asteroid impacts in Jurassic Park. A missing British Mars spacecraft was the subject of the 2005 Doctor Who Christmas Special. Pillinger appeared in Top Gear season 3 episode 7 and won a contest based on the best burnout. Beagle 2 featured in a science fiction story by Stephen Baxter and as one of the subject in The Backroom Boys by Frances Spufford. Pillinger's studies on Martian meteorites could be considered as the basis of the bestselling book Deception Point by Dan Brown.[25]

Awards and accomplishments[edit]

Chronology of qualifications, career, and awards:[7]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Colin Pillinger dies after brain haemorrhage". BBC News. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Desert Island Discs with Colin Pillinger". Desert Island Discs. 2009-10-25. BBC. Radio 4. 
  3. ^ Planetary and Space Science Research Institute PSSRI Contributors (accessed 12 May 2014)
  4. ^ Michael Hanlon (2004). The real Mars. Basic Books. p. 166. ISBN 978-1-4050-3639-9. 
  5. ^ Colin Pillinger at the Internet Movie Database
  6. ^ Beagle 2 - in conversation with Colin Pillinger from a talk at the Royal Society
  7. ^ a b c d e "Biography". Pillinger's personal website. Archived from the original on 18 February 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2009. 
  8. ^ McKie, Robin (29 December 2002). "Colin Pillinger". The Guardian. London. 
  9. ^ Professor Colin Pillinger CBE FRS - News Stories - GOV.UK (accessed 12 May 2014)
  10. ^ Colin Pillinger dies aged 70 Times Higher Education (8 May 2014) (accessed 12 May 2014)
  11. ^ Gresham Professor of Astronomy
  12. ^ Pavitt, Geoff (2006). Portraits of the Gresham Professors. London: Gresham College. 
  13. ^ JLA (accessed 07 August 2012)
  14. ^ a b "JPL Small-Body Database Browser on 15614 Pillinger". 
  15. ^ Colin Pillinger, scientist behind Britain's Beagle 2 Mars mission, dies aged 70 Mail Online (accessed 12 May 2014)
  16. ^ "Rosetta Ptolemy Blog". Retrieved 15 November 2014. 
  17. ^ "Beagle mission 'poorly managed'". BBC News. 24 May 2004. 
  18. ^ Beagle 2 scientist Colin Pillinger dies aged 70, The Guardian Online (8 May 2014) (accessed 12 May 2014)
  19. ^ Male, Andrew: "A Life Less Orderly", Select, September 1999, p57
  20. ^ "Aluminum-Bearing Site on Mars Draws NASA Visitor". NASA. 2014-06-24. Retrieved 2014-07-01. 
  21. ^ "Beagle 2 successfully landed on Mars on 25th December 2003". UKSA. 2015-01-16. Retrieved 2015-01-16. 
  22. ^ "Shusanah Pillinger makes British RAAM history". BBC Sport. 30 June 2015. 
  23. ^ Ghosh, Pallab (18 July 2005). "Red Planet scientist battles MS". BBC News. Retrieved 30 October 2009. 
  24. ^ "Colin Pillinger dies after brain haemorrhage". BBC Online. 8 May 2014. Retrieved 8 May 2014. 
  25. ^ (accessed 12 May 2014)
  26. ^ "Royal Society – Michael Faraday Prize". Retrieved 4 February 2012. 
  27. ^ "Books". Colin Pillinger. Retrieved 18 October 2010.