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Thursday, 8 May 2014

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
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:

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.

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