Colin Pillinger was not one to compromise or toe the line

Stefan Rousseau/PA

Almost all of the reflections and eulogies of Colin Pillinger, who passed away on May 8, will focus on his role in the Beagle 2 space mission to Mars. But this only occupied a small part of his career, lasting about five years from start to finish. What is perhaps surprising, and something most people don’t know, is that his work on Beagle 2 was the result of a chance set of circumstances. Colin wasn’t a man to waste such an opportunity.

So how did he arrive at the Beagle 2 starting gate? By background he was an organic chemist who was in the right place at the right time to study Apollo 11 lunar samples returned to Earth in 1969. This was no ordinary challenge – dedicated laboratories had to be set up, levels of cleanliness and contamination control had to rise to new heights and new methods of sample handling had to be devised. There was only one problem: the returned samples didn’t contain any organic (carbon and hydrogen containing) compounds.

Lunar samples had many interesting secrets to divulge. Thousands of people have worked on them for all kinds of different reasons and they are still being studied actively today. For Colin in the early 1970s the challenge was to study what little carbon, which was not organic because it didn’t have any hydrogen in them, was present in the samples. This required a completely new set of analytical approaches.

The moon may seem a simple celestial body, but it isn’t. The material at the very surface (the “regolith”) presented seemingly intractable problems for interpretation. Some of these still exist today and look increasingly likely to remain unresolved until further exploration missions are undertaken. This is something that continued to drive Colin right up until the end; he desperately wanted a return to the moon.

Moving home

We met Colin as PhD students at the University of Cambridge. Colin didn’t have a tenured position at Cambridge being effectively a postdoc. It was clear that his uncompromising attitude to almost everything didn’t exactly align with the ethos of one of the UK’s oldest educational establishments.

During his search for a more secure future he happened upon a possible opportunity at the Open University (at the time, one of the youngest educational establishments). This would require moving his operation and his foot soldiers, like us PhD students.

However, it also gave us an opportunity to set up a world-class analytical facility. And soon the research group began to grow in size. And, scientifically, the work started at Cambridge changed gear over the following few years. These resulted in a raft of seminal papers in areas such as martian weathering, deep-Earth processes, atmospheric science and pre-solar grains.

Then came Rosetta, the space probe that is currently on its way to land on a comet. It gave us the chance to start building space hardware. But a project with a 20-year projected lifetime wasn’t something that ultimately appealed to Colin. And so this is where some of the work we had been doing on martian meteorites began to start Colin thinking about attempting to replicate the measurements on Mars itself (since, in principle, a mission to Mars could be done in months).

On to Mars

We had already identified organic compounds in samples of Mars analysed in the laboratory. While we disagreed on the interpretation of those results, we all agreed that there was always going to be a nagging doubt that these samples could have been contaminated on Earth before we studied them.

So the only way to find out if those organic compounds actually came from Mars was to take our laboratory there. We could once and for all address the issue of organic carbon without having to worry about contamination.

The experience of working on Rosetta had shown that we had the skills necessary to develop an instrument to study the martian surface. All that was needed was a spacecraft, a launcher, an operations centre, and a facility in which to build the spacecraft under conditions that were aseptic and conformed to international laws on planetary protection. Just the kind of challenges that Colin liked to have for breakfast.

This is how Colin started working on the Beagle 2 project. Much media coverage has been devoted to the plucky little spacecraft and its eccentric-looking parent. But Beagle 2 is not the only, or even the most important, legacy left by Colin Pillinger. His infectious enthusiasm, coupled with his appearance of having just parked his tractor, inspired a generation of school students to take an interest in the search for life on Mars.

Somewhat in contrast to his public face as a “larger than life” exuberant and extrovert boffin, in private and with his colleagues, Colin was a serious, dedicated and professional scientist. He is responsible for training almost 100 students and post-doctoral scientists who are now scattered across the globe, occupying significant posts in academia, industry and enterprise. We remember Colin with affection and gratitude for the opportunities that he gave us, and the worlds he opened up for us.

He retired a couple of years ago and assumed a role as Emeritus Professor. When this happens one of two things ensue: the person is never really seen again, or they spend more time at work than they used to. Colin was in the latter category.

But it wasn’t an opportunity to take it easy and engage in the “scholarship of synthesis” – no, he only remained interested in new projects. These could be either small in scale (tolerated) or big (positively nerve-jangling at management level). One thing that united all of them was that it didn’t matter to him whether they fitted into anyone’s strategic plan, or not.