British planetary scientist Professor Colin Pillinger, who engineered the failed British attempt to land a rover on Mars, died on Wednesday aged 70 after suffering a brain haemorrhage.
Respected scientist and lecturer at the Open University, Pillinger started his career working at Nasa, performing lunar rock analyses as part of the Apollo programme.
Ironically, he became best known as a driving force behind the failed 2003 Beagle 2 project, designed to land on Mars.
The UK-designed and manufactured spacecraft was part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. Scheduled to land on the surface of the Red Planet on Christmas Day 2003, the spacecraft disappeared without a trace after separating from the ExoMars orbiter. The reasons behind its loss have never been determined.
Professor Pillinger, who was awarded a CBE in 2003, was open about his disappointment that the mission was not attempted again as he remained adamant the design of the spacecraft was working.
He said: ''There was nothing totally fatal about Beagle. We went through Beagle's technology again and again, there was nothing that shouldn't have worked. We were very frustrated that there was money available and it didn't happen.
''When you've already invented something, like with Beagle or Phoenix, it is relatively cheap to try again. You don't have to spend a lot of money, you've already got the invention.''
The ill-fated Beagle 2, named after HMS Beagle which twice carried Charles Darwin during his expeditions which helped him form the basis for the natural selection theory, was supposed to search for traces of past life on Mars and send back pictures and analysis of the planet’s soil.
Professor Pillinger said the most important spin-off from the £50m mission was an instrument suitable for use in remote parts of Africa to help TB sufferers.
Despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, the Royal Astronomical Society fellow remained dedicated to continue the unfinished business with Mars.
''The science is more important now than it ever was because of discoveries that were made with Mars Express, the Nasa rovers and ground-based astronomy,” he said.
''It all suggests that we were right to look for life on Mars and we might be able to find both past and present life, and the experiments haven't been done yet and it's up to us to do them.''
Multiple sclerosis is most frequently diagnosed in people between 20 and 40 years of age and rarely affects older individuals. The condition decreased Pillinger’s physical mobility and made it difficult for him to walk. However, his death came unexpected.
Among those paying tributes and expressing sadness about the sudden passing of the scientist were fellow researchers, spacecraft engineers and artists from across Europe.
Alex James from Blur, who worked with Professor Pillinger on the Beagle 2 project and composed the probe’s call sign said: "Colin had the rare gift of being able to make things that were complicated and ambitious seem simple and achievable. We need more scientists like that. He was unique, and I will miss him."
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.”
Professor Pillinger, who had more than 40 years of experience in space science and research, was also involved in a number of other high profile space projects including the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission. Following the news of Pillinger’s death, the agency wrote: "Shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Professor Colin Pillinger."
Professor Andrew Coates, head of planetary science at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London stressed the importance of the Beagle 2 mission which continues influencing design of new spacecraft despite is doomed mission. "It was a great experience to work with Colin on Beagle 2. Beagle 2's legacy is the miniaturised technology, some of which is being provided for the ExoMars 2018 rover, and is still being proposed for other missions.”