The "inspirational" planetary scientist suffered a brain haemorrhage at his home in Cambridge and later died in hospital.
Prof Pillinger, a father of two who was awarded the CBE in 2003, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. His family said yesterday his death was "devastating and unbelievable".
He became a professor in interplanetary science at the Open University in 1991 and earned a host of other qualifications during his distinguished career, along with numerous awards.
But he was most famous for the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars, which was supposed to land on the planet on Christmas Day 2003 and search for signs of life, but vanished without a trace. It was last seen heading for Mars on December 19, after separating from its European Space Agency mothership Mars Express.
Prof Pillinger was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Its deputy executive secretary, Robert Massey, said he expected tributes would be paid to him tomorrow at its AGM.
Mr Massey said: "Colin was an inspirational scientist. He wasn't afraid to challenge the establishment and get things done."