Science & Environment

Mars beauty spot named in honour of Colin Pillinger

View of Pillinger Point

This stunning scene was captured by the cameras on Nasa's Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity. Here, the leader of the rover's science team, Prof Steve Squyres of Cornell University in New York, explains why he named the landscape after the British space scientist, Colin Pillinger.

The death of Colin Pillinger hit me very hard. Colin and I had never met before he began his work on the Beagle 2 lander and I began mine on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

But with both missions going to Mars at the same time, we were thrust into the limelight together. In news accounts at the time it was often portrayed as a kind of competition between the two missions.

Behind the scenes, though, Colin and I became friends, and strong supporters of each other's efforts.

Image copyright Judith Pillinger
Image caption Steve Squyres (L) and Colin Pillinger: "We were thrust into the limelight together. Behind the scenes, Colin and I became friends."

When I heard the news of Colin's death, I knew immediately that we had to name a place on Mars after him. And by very good luck, Opportunity was at that moment approaching one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen on Mars. We named it Pillinger Point.

Pillinger Point lies on the western rim of Endeavour Crater, an impact crater about 22 km in diameter that is formed in rocks from the earliest epoch of martian history.

The view from Pillinger Point into the crater is, I think, lovely. In the foreground is the rugged crest of Pillinger Point itself, made of "impact breccia", a jumble of rocks formed by the impact event.

Mars memorial

The ground slopes away toward the distance, and a broad expanse of sand dunes can be seen on the crater floor.

The weather was clear when we took the image, and in the distance the opposite side of the crater rim is clearly visible some 20 km away. I like to think that Colin would have enjoyed this view, and I hope that our image of it will help honour his memory.

Beagle 2 was a beautiful concept: A compact lander with an ambitious science payload focused on one of the most important questions in all of science.

But Mars is a harsh place, and Colin and his team sadly never got to complete the job they set out to do. What they did do, though, was energize the public in Britain and around the globe in a way that few scientific explorers have matched.

Colin was a force of nature, and his enthusiasm for Mars exploration was unparalleled. So I think that Beagle 2's greatest legacy, and part of Colin's, is surely the thousands of young people who were inspired to pursue careers in science, in engineering, and in technology, and to follow in Colin's footsteps.

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