Born: May 9, 1943; Died: May 7, 2014

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Colin Pillinger, who has died aged 70, was the founder and first head of the Planetary and Space Sciences Institute at the Open University, a former member of the NASA Apollo programme and an exceptionally engaging populariser of science.

In this last role he came to prominence as the leader of what was undoubtedly his best-known project: the plan to land the Beagle 2 explorer on the surface of Mars in 2003.

Professor Pillinger was instrumental in persuading the European Space Agency to include a lander in their Mars Express mission, which launched in June 2003. Beagle 2 was named after HMS Beagle, the ship on which Charles Darwin travelled on the expeditions which led him to develop his theory of natural selection.

Professor Pillinger and his team hoped that their lander would provide a similar insight into life on Mars - with the fairly significant proviso that there is, or ever has been, any there in the first place.

As the planned landing - scheduled for Christmas Day - approached, Professor Pillinger was seldom absent from television screens, explaining how the stationary science platform would unfold "like a fobwatch" and then transmit pictures and analysis of the surface of Mars.

The project caught the popular imagination, thanks to Professor Pillinger's gifts as a communicator and a number of inventive wheezes; the call sign which would announce that Beagle 2 had landed was composed by the pop group Blur, while one of Damien Hirst's spot paintings was to be used as a colour calibration chart to check that the instruments were functioning correctly.

It helped, too, that Professor Pillinger, with his extravagant muttonchop whiskers and straggly hair, looked exactly like the general public's notion of the archetypal Open University science lecturer that, in reality, he was.

The launch of the ESA mission went smoothly and all seemed to be progressing as planned for Beagle 2, but contact with the probe was lost before it reached the surface. The Mars Express remains in orbit around the planet, but the fate of Beagle 2 was never discovered.

Professor Pillinger was deeply disappointed by the mission's failure. When the Nasa Phoenix lander successfully touched down on Mars in 2008, he voiced his frustration Beagle had not been given another attempt, pointing out the principal expense had been in developing it (at £50 million, very cheaply, by the standards of space hardware) and that a second version could have been sent relatively easily.

Colin Trevor Pillinger was born on May 9 1943 in Kingswood, near Bristol, where his father Alfred worked for the gas board.

He was educated at Kingswood Grammar and in 1961 went up to University College Swansea (now Swansea University) to study Chemistry. After graduation, he stayed on to do a PhD in mass spectrometry, a technique for the chemical analysis of the ions of atoms or molecules.

Pillinger then found work with the American space agency Nasa, where his work included the analysis of samples of lunar rock collected during the Apollo missions.

He was a research associate at the University of Bristol and then, from 1976-1984, the University of Cambridge. In 1984, he received his DSc in Chemistry from Bristol, and led a European project called Euromet to collect meteorites from deserts.

This led to his interest in Mars and in 1991 he became Professor of Interplanetary Science at the Open University. In 1997, he persuaded the ESA to take on the Beagle lander project.

Among his other academic ­distinctions, Professor Pillinger was Gresham Professor of Astronomy at City of London, a Fellow of the Royal Society and runner-up for the 2005 Descartes Prize for Communication in science.

He was appointed CBE in 2003. An asteroid, 15614 Pillinger, in the belt between Mars and Jupiter is named in his honour.

In 2005, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but refused to let his illness curtail his efforts to communicate the value of science to the general public. He died after a brain haemorrhage at his home in Cambridge, and is survived by his wife Judith and their two children.