Flamsteed Astronomy Society

Beagle 2 and beyond — Professor Colin Pillinger

April 21, 2008

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by Roger Geeson

Prof Colin Pillinger by Mike Dryland

Colin with the Beagle 2 model, 

March 2001 

(All rights reserved Beagle 2)

Prof Colin Pillinger  (Pic: Mike Dryland)

Colin himself has been cruelly stricken with ill-health since then, but although there were a number of poignant moments in his talk, his pervading theme and constant message was one of achievement and positivity.   We all shared his sense of deep and stoic disappointment over the last-minute failure of the mission and his frustration with the development difficulties and setbacks which he and his team had fought so valiantly to overcome.  Despite everything, his drive and quest for knowledge remain his raison d’etre, and his approach to life and science is permeated with, and doubtless bolstered by an incorrigible sense of humour.

That sense of humour and his passion for cartoons formed a recurring thread throughout the talk and led to the production of his latest book ‘Space is a Funny Place’.  He opened by offering a chuckled apology for misnaming us the ‘Greenwich Astronomical Society’ on his slide, but of course we instantly forgave him.

 Referring to the 50 year-or-so dalliance of mankind with ‘Space’, Colin set out to hang a story on the numerous cartoons which have been produced to accompany it.   He began the tale with Wm. Blake’s ‘I want! I want!’ ladder to the Moon drawn way back in 1793!

 He spoke of when his interest in Space began during his schooldays in Bristol.  An alumnus – one Bernard Lovell (now Sir Bernard of course) - was busy at the brand-new Jodrell Bank radio telescope.  Lovell was monitoring the orbit of the Russian ‘Sputnik’ satellite for the Americans and, incidentally, saving the desperately under-funded telescope project while he was at it!


Colin was recruited to the NASA Apollo programme in 1969 to assist with the Apollo 11 Lunar rock sample analysis project and subsequently worked on all of the following Apollo missions. His team developed new and sophisticated methods of measuring the minute quantities of chemical elements found in moon rock samples. He developed a lifelong interest which extended to meteorites, and noted that there were at least a dozen known samples of meteoritic rock from Mars at a time when no probe had ever been landed there.  Colin himself was involved in the early analysis of Martian meteorite ALH84001 which was to become famous later for containing possible micro-organism remnants.


Charles Darwin

(any resemblance to Prof Pillinger is entirely coincidental)

(Darwin Heirlooms Trust)

On Monday April 21, the Flamsteed Society was privileged to welcome Colin Pillinger CBE, FRS, Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Open University.  Colin addressed a packed lecture theatre on the subject of Beagle 2 and “Space is a Funny Place”.

 We first warmed to Colin Pillinger when he spoke so ebulliently and with such confidence prior to the launch of the inspirational Beagle 2 Mars Lander in June 2003.  Tragically the mission ended in mystery when the Lander failed to transmit any radio communication following its injection into the Martian atmosphere on Christmas Day 2003.  This huge disappointment followed a fraught but faultless development and launch and it has never been possible to establish any technical reasons for the failure.


The idea of a Martian lander to collect and analyse samples was conceived by Colin.  He confessed that the name Beagle 2 was suggested by his wife as an apt analogy with Darwin’s first Beagle expedition which sailed in 1830 in search of new species.   Colin bristles at the suggestion he was also personally involved in the first Beagle mission.