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
Philae (spacecraft) comet lander [2]
Analyzing Apollo lunar samples[3]
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,[4] he was also the principal investigator for the failed British Beagle 2 Mars lander project, and worked on a group of Martian meteorites.[5]

Pillinger played a role in the Rosetta mission. He advocated deploying the lander Philae that failed soon after an uncontrolled descent, and was instrumental in getting the Ptolemy device accepted as part of the science payload.[2]

Early life[edit]

Pillinger was born on 9 May 1943 in Kingswood, South Gloucestershire, just outside Bristol.[6] 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.[3][6] 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).[6] He said of himself, "I was a disaster as a science student".[7]


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.[8]

Pillinger's first job was working for NASA. He was involved in the Apollo space programme and ESA's Rosetta mission [9] and analysed the lunar samples brought back by Apollo 11.[3]

Pillinger worked as a conference and after-dinner speaker for the JLA agency.[10]

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?"

Beagle 2[edit]

Replica of Beagle 2 in the London Science Museum.

Pillinger is best known for being 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.[3] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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?"[15]

In 2000, a main belt asteroid was named 15614 Pillinger after Colin Pillinger.[16]

In 2003, Pillinger was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for his services to Higher Education and to Science.[17]

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.[18]

The UK Space Agency on 16 January 2015 indicated that Beagle 2 had reached the surface of Mars on 25 December 2003.[19] Images taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) identified evidence that the lander was damaged during landing.

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,[3][6] who in 2015 became the first solo British woman to complete the Race Across America ultra-endurance cycle race.[20]

After experiencing difficulty with walking for two years, Pillinger was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in May 2005.[21] He owned a dairy farm, but his illness prevented him from doing physical work on the farm.[3]

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.[22]

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.[23]

Awards and accomplishments[edit]

Chronology of qualifications, career, and awards:[6]


See also[edit]


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

External links[edit]