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08 May 2014

Tributes paid by The Open University to “inspirational” planetary scientist Professor Colin Pillinger

Prof Colin Pillinger

Prof Colin Pillinger

The Open University (OU) is paying tribute to one of its leading scientific academics Professor Colin Pillinger, who has died at the age of 70.

The Emeritus Professor worked for the OU for 35 years in Planetary and Space Sciences and was head of the Planetary & Space Science Research Institute (PSSRI) until 2005. He was already known in global planetary circles but became a household name when he built a probe to search for Martian life – the Beagle 2 spacecraft, just one highlight of a lifetime dedicated to planetary research.

Awarded a CBE in 2003 Professor Pillinger also had the auspicious accolade of having an asteroid named after him the following year

Professor Pillinger was highly respected by the global planetary science community and was a frequent commentator on space activity.

Former colleagues described him as “enthusiastic, inspirational and never-failing in his drive to promote planetary sciences and the science that would come from missions to the Moon and Mars”.

Professor in Planetary Sciences Monica Grady, who worked with him for 35 years said: “He was my PhD supervisor, and one of the most influential figures in my life, both academically and as a friend. We collaborated on a great variety of projects, and were talking about new things to work on when I saw him last week. I will miss him, as I’m sure that many others will as well.”

Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor, The Open University, said: “Professor Pillinger was not only an inspiration to us here at the OU, but to people across the world with his infectious enthusiasm for science and discovery. His expertise continues to inform current space and scientific research – such as the work by the OU on Europe’s Rosetta comet landing craft.

“I have no doubt that Colin’s legacy will be to inspire and stimulate study in this field for many decades to come. Here at the OU we are immensely proud of our association with such a much-valued and much-loved scientist.”

Prof David Southwood, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: “Colin was driven by science but especially the will to establish whether Mars had, has or could have sustained life. That will was expressed in enthusiasm, wit and tireless work and was infectious. He touched many lives and careers. He will be much missed."

Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association, said: "Colin Pillinger was a true ambassador for science; not only did his work capture the public's imagination, he was incredibly warm and generous with his time, especially in inspiring younger generations of scientists to follow in his footsteps. I'm sure the thoughts of everyone who had the privilege of meeting him will be with his friends and family at this time."

Professor Pillinger was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1993 for the major contributions he has made to geochemistry and cosmochemistry. Since his early work on the Apollo lunar samples, he had been a specialist in the occurrence and isotopic composition of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen in extraterrestrial materials. This has led him to the investigation of the possibilities of life beyond Earth, and particularly the search for life on Mars.

The probe Beagle 2, named after Charles Darwin’s HMS Beagle, was carried piggyback to the Red Planet on a European satellite, but contact was lost after it was deposited for landing in December 2003.

The Beagle 2 mission however succeeded in turning Professor Pillinger into an international star overnight and his expertise and charismatic West Country charm was in continual demand by media who saw him as the commentator of choice for numerous space and scientific discoveries.

Professor Pillinger was married to wife Judith and has two children Shusanah and Nicholas.

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