Skip to main content

From Apollo 11 to Beagle 2: the amazing life of Professor Colin Pillinger

Professor Colin Pillinger, the Bristol-born scientist, passed away today at the age of 70. Although he is probably best known as the leader of the Beagle 2 project, the attempt to land a British spacecraft on Mars, he was involved in ground-breaking scientific research for over 40 years.

The man famed for his whiskers...
In 1968, Colin joined the University of Bristol as a postdoctoral researcher working within the Organic Geochemistry Unit. Along with Geoff Eglinton and James Maxwell, he helped to analyse the first samples of lunar soil and rock retrieved from the Apollo 11 moon landings (Abell et al., 1970). To avoid contamination, the samples were transported from Houston triple-bagged, opened in a clean room and extracted using purified solvents and reagents. Yet despite all these precautions, the Apollo 11 soil did not show any molecular fossils accepted as biological markers. Although less newsworthy, the Bristol-based team also identified the presence of methane on the moon, produced by chemical reactions driven by the solar wind. All of this work would not have been possible without the development of sensitive analytical techniques. Colin was a brilliant analytical chemist and two of his greatest achievements were pioneering mass spectrometry methods which allowed measurements to be made on a thousand times smaller samples than anyone else and building a semi-autonomous mass spectrometer which could survive the rigours of a rocket launch. Developments in mass spectrometry have allowed scientists working within the Cabot Institute to investigate a variety of environmental problems here on earth (e.g. assessment of sewage pollutants in soils and freshwaters, effect of soil fauna upon the decomposition of soil organic matter and the development of chemical proxies for methane emissions from cattle). In my research, I use mass spectrometry to investigate past warm climates. Using this technique, I can reconstruct the temperature or the precipitation patterns of  high CO2 worlds and use this to inform us about future climate change.

Colin (front) and James Maxwell
(back) 
analysing the lunar samples
 from Apollo 11

Over the next twenty years, Colin was involved in a variety of research, from the geothermal maturation of oils (Didyk et al., 1975) to the genesis of basaltic magma in the earth’s mantle (Mattey et al., 1984). It was during this time, he began to study the evolution of life on Mars. Although there was a hiatus in space missions to Mars following the Viking missions in 1976, it was possible to continue researching life on Mars using Martian meteorites. In 1994, Colin and co-authors used carbon and oxygen isotopes to show that carbonates preserved within a Martian meteorite were precipitated from a low-temperature fluid in the Martian crust. From this they were able to conclude that the Martian climate was once warm and wet (Romanek et al., 1994). In the 1990’s, Colin took charge of Beagle 2, a British-based lander which was to be deployed on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) 2003 Mars Express mission. Named after HMW Beagle, which twice carried Charles Darwin, the aim was to search for organic matter on and below the surface of Mars (Wright et al., 2003). Launched on the 2nd of June 2003, Beagle 2 was scheduled to enter the Martian atmosphere on Christmas Day 2003; however, all contact was lost with Beagle 2 upon its separation from the Mars Express 6 days previous. Regrettably no one knows exactly what happened to Beagle 2.

 
Once landed, it was hoped that Beagle 2 would look
something like this...

In the days and months that followed, the media turned on Pillinger and British space research. The ESA and the UK government held a joint investigation and eventually published a 42 page report which suggested that Beagle 2 was doomed from before it was even attached to Mars Express. Debates even took place which argued whether the UK should be involved with space programmes at all! I think there are some important analogues between Beagle 2 and the recent Climategate scandal. Although there was no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct, the intense media coverage of the documents stolen from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia created public confusion about the scientific consensus on climate change. But I admired Colin Pillinger’s response to scientific failure. He faced the media with the same cheerful candour with which he had promoted the original idea. He highlighted the cruel nature of science. Experiments fail. Things go wrong. But by adopting this approach he gained the respect of many people, including my own.

For more information on Colin’s research, you can access his website:
http://colinpillinger.com/barnstormpr.co.uk/index.asp/

Extra reading:
  • Abell, P. I., Draffan, G. H., Eglinton, G., Hayes, J. M., Maxwell, J. R., and Pillinger, C. T., 1970, Organic Analysis of the Returned Lunar Sample: Science, v. 167, no. 3918, p. 757-759.
  • Didyk, B. M., Alturki, Y. I. A., Pillinger, C. T., and Eglinton, G., 1975, Petroporphyrins as indicators of geothermal maturation: Nature, v. 256, no. 5518, p. 563-565.
  • Mattey, D. P., Carr, R. H., Wright, I. P., and Pillinger, C. T., 1984, Carbon isotopes in submarine basalts: Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 70, no. 2, p. 196-206.
  • Romanek, C. S., Grady, M. M., Wright, I. P., Mittlefehldt, D. W., Socki, R. A., Pillinger, C. T., and Gibson, E. K., 1994, Record of fluid–rock interactions on Mars from the meteorite ALH84001: Nature, v. 372, no. 6507, p. 655-657.
  • Wright, I. P., Sims, M. R., and Pillinger, C. T., 2003, Scientific objectives of the Beagle 2 lander: Acta Astronautica, v. 52, no. 2–6, p. 219-225.

Popular posts from this blog

Are you a journalist looking for climate experts? We've got you covered

We've got lots of media trained climate change experts. If you need an expert for an interview, here is a list of Caboteers you can approach. All media enquiries should be made via  Victoria Tagg , our dedicated Media and PR Manager at the University of Bristol. Email victoria.tagg@bristol.ac.uk or call +44 (0)117 428 2489. Climate change / climate emergency / climate science / climate-induced disasters Dr Eunice Lo - expert in changes in extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold spells , and how these changes translate to negative health outcomes including illnesses and deaths. Follow on Twitter @EuniceLoClimate . Professor Daniela Schmidt - expert in the causes and effects of climate change on marine systems . Dani is also a Lead Author on the IPCC reports. Dani will be at COP26. Dr Katerina Michalides - expert in drylands, drought and desertification and helping East African rural communities to adapt to droughts and future climate change. Follow on Twitter @_k

Urban gardens are crucial food sources for pollinators - here’s what to plant for every season

A bumblebee visits a blooming honeysuckle plant. Sidorova Mariya | Shutterstock Pollinators are struggling to survive in the countryside, where flower-rich meadows, hedges and fields have been replaced by green monocultures , the result of modern industrialised farming. Yet an unlikely refuge could come in the form of city gardens. Research has shown how the havens that urban gardeners create provide plentiful nectar , the energy-rich sugar solution that pollinators harvest from flowers to keep themselves flying. In a city, flying insects like bees, butterflies and hoverflies, can flit from one garden to the next and by doing so ensure they find food whenever they need it. These urban gardens produce some 85% of the nectar found in a city. Countryside nectar supplies, by contrast, have declined by one-third in Britain since the 1930s. Our new research has found that this urban food supply for pollinators is also more diverse and continuous

#CabotNext10 Spotlight on City Futures

In conversation with Dr Katharina Burger, theme lead at the Cabot Institute for the Environment. Dr Katharina Burger Why did you choose to become a theme leader at Cabot Institute ? I applied to become a Theme Leader at Cabot, a voluntary role, to bring together scientists from different faculties to help us jointly develop proposals to address some of the major challenges facing our urban environments. My educational background is in Civil Engineering at Bristol and I am now in the School of Management, I felt that this combination would allow me to build links and communicate across different ways of thinking about socio-technical challenges and systems. In your opinion, what is one of the biggest global challenges associated with your theme? (Feel free to name others if there is more than one) The biggest challenge is to evolve environmentally sustainable, resilient, socially inclusive, safe and violence-free and economically productive cities. The following areas are part of this c