Mars Pioneer Behind Failed Beagle 2 Mission Passes Away
May 9, 2014

Colin Pillinger, UK Scientist Behind Failed 2003 Mars Mission, Dies At Age 70

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Colin Pillinger, the British space scientist best known for a failed 2003 attempt to land a spacecraft on Mars, has died at the age of 70, his family and colleagues confirmed to various media outlets on Thursday.

According to BBC News, Pillinger suffered a brain hemorrhage and fell into a coma while at his Cambridge home. He later passed away at Addenbrooke's Hospital without regaining consciousness, his family said in a statement, calling his death “devastating and unbelievable.”

Pillinger, who had been serving as the professor of interplanetary science at the Open University, was the catalyst for the Beagle 2 space mission, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

Beagle 2 was named in honor of the ship used by Charles Darwin in the 19th century, and the plan was for the spacecraft to touch down on Mars on December 25, 2003. However, six days before its scheduled landing, European Space Agency officials lost contact with the probe after it separated from its mothership.

“An investigation found that it may have burned up in the planet's atmosphere,” the AP reported. “The loss of the probe, which cost the government more than $40 million and the private sector another $80 million, prompted questions in Britain about Europe's ability to participate in the race to Mars.”

Pillinger, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005 at the age of 62, was said to be extremely disappointed by the outcome of the mission, the wire service noted. However, he was hopeful that a second attempt could be made, stating that he and the rest of the scientific community had “unfinished business” on Mars.

In an interview with Kate Kelland of Reuters, Andrew Coates, the head of planetary science group at the University College London Mullard Space Science Laboratory, called Pillinger “a visionary and an inspirational leader… He really raised our hopes of actually going to Mars in 2003.”

Likewise, UK Space Agency chief executive Dr. David Parker told the BBC that the professor played a vital role in raising awareness about the country’s space program, and University of Leicester Professor and Beagle 2 mission manager Mark Sims called him “a top-rate scientist” and said that it “was a privilege to have known him and worked with him, both as a friend and colleague.”

BBC News science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, who met Pillinger while covering the Beagle 2 project, recalled what the professor told him at that time: “We've all looked up at the sky and wondered if life was out there. If we could find life on Mars then you could make the quantum leap and realize that we are not the only living species in the Universe.”

“Indeed, many of us have wondered that, but unlike the rest of us, Colin decided that he was going to do something about it, and he could not see why he should not be able to do it,” Ghosh said. “Although Colin was not successful in landing his 2003 probe, his efforts inspired the nation and introduced a new generation to the wonders of space.”