LONDON–British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger, the driving force behind the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars, died on Thursday at the age of 70, his family said. The professor, hailed by his colleagues as an inspirational figure with boundless enthusiasm for his subject, suffered a brain haemorrhage on Wednesday. “It is with profound sadness that we are telling friends and colleagues that Colin, whilst sitting in the garden yesterday afternoon, suffered a severe brain haemorrhage resulting in a deep coma,” his family said.
The father of two was taken to a hospital near his home in Cambridge, eastern England, and died peacefully on Thursday afternoon. “We ask that all respect our privacy at this devastating and unbelievable time,” his family said. Pillinger, who cut a distinctive figure with his mutton-chop whiskers, studied in Wales and began his career at the U.S. space agency NASA, analyzing samples of moon rock on the Apollo program. But he won fame for his lead role in developing Beagle 2, a British lander that rode piggy-back to Mars aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express in 2003. Named after Charles Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle, it was shaped like a giant pocket watch and opened to reveal solar panels, a robotic arm and research equipment designed to search for signs of life. It should have landed on the red planet on Christmas Day 2003 but never made contact with Earth. A later investigation concluded that it probably burned up in the atmosphere of Mars. In the early days and weeks after it disappeared, Pillinger remained relentlessly optimistic and his terrier-like enthusiasm made him a popular figure on British television.