8 May 2014

Colin Pillinger the ‘British boffin’ – what you didn’t know

Colin Pillinger may be best known for Britain’s failed Beagle 2 landing on Mars, but the inspirational scientist had plenty more up his sleeve. Here are just some of his less well known achievements.

With his sizeable sideburns and Bristolian drawl, Professor Pillinger was the friendly face of British planetary science for decades.

His work ranged from analysing samples of moon rock brought back from the Apollo 11 crew, to working on the Huygens lander on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. But he became famous for leading the Beagle 2 lander project, which was part of the European Space Agency’s 2003 Mars Express mission. It was supposed to land on Christmas Day 2003 and begin a search for signs of life, but instead vanished without a trace.

Just four years later, Nasa’s Phoenix probe managed to land on Mars – something that Professor Pillinger was humble enough to say was “very good news”.

Small design, big legacy

Although the Beagle 2 failed, it had a big impact on the development of scientific tools that are sent into space – and those used down here on earth.

There was a limited amount of room within Beagle 2, but it had to carry the tools to measure a sign of life on Mars, beam that information back to earth and land safely. The whole probe used a tiny amount of power – enough for a single light-bulb.

A piece of Professor Pillinger now moves between Mars and Jupiter Dr Everett Gibson

“Colin realised he had to limit a Martian lander to the size of a barbecue,” Robert Massey from the Royal Astronomical Society told Channel 4 News, “and he did that. He wasn’t a procedures person – he wanted results. He wanted things to happen, and that was the driving force for him.”

Treating TB

The “miniaturisation” of these tools on such a scale has had big implications. Despite the frustration at having no budget to keep pursuing the space missions, he got funding from the Wellcome Trust under the proviso that the equipment could be used for medical gain.”

Professor Pillinger, who led the Open University’s department of physical sciences until 2005, had said he was most proud of the spin-off instrument that could be deployed in remote parts of Africa to help TB sufferers. It was able to deliver very quick test results, speeding up the process from a matter of weeks, to hours.

“You don’t spend any money in space,” he said in a previous interview. “That money is invested in knowledge and technology that can be used for a variety of other things.”

Asteroid ‘Pillinger’

In 2004, just one year after the failed Mars landing, Professor Pillinger was honoured by the International Astronomical Union, who named an asteroid after him.

It was a fitting tribute to a man who spent decades analysing meteorites – or “stones from space”, as he called them. And studying Martian meterorites led him to discover that there had been water on Mars at one point. The University of Bristol said he had in fact made over a thousand contributions to scientific literature in his lifetime.

Asteroid 15614 was named “Pillinger” in recognition of his discoveries over three decades. Nasa senior scientist Dr Everett Gibson said: “A piece of Professor Pillinger now moves between Mars and Jupiter.”

The inspirational ‘British boffin’

Many of the tributes to Professor Pillinger have mentioned his ability to cut through the jargon and related to the public. In his mission to get something British on Mars, he enlisted the services of Blur and Damien Hirst, boosting his financial backing and public interest in his cause.

Even after becoming a research fellow at Cambridge University and Professor at the Open University, Professor Pillinger always maintained a down-to-earth approach. This made him a “role model”, added Dr Massey, making people believe that space science was within their reach.

He previously told the Observer: “I was a disaster as a science student. Every time I mixed two solutions together, the results blew up and ended up all over the ceiling.” And yet he went on to work on a series of international space missions, doggedly pursuing his goals.

Perhaps his most definitive title was summed up by Phil Ford, a writer on Dr Who, who described Professor Pillinger fondly as “a proper British boffin”.