Colin Pillinger CBE FRS (1943-2014) had a long and prestigious career as a planetary scientist. His work included analysing lunar samples returned by the NASA Apollo missions and collected by the Soviet Luna programme, first at Bristol University and then at Cambridge.

At the Open University, Colin Pillinger’s team discovered exquisitely small diamonds created before the birth of the Solar System and captured within meteorites, and analysed meteorites from Mars, finding carbonates which suggesed the past presence of liquid water on the red planet. Leading the Beagle 2 Mars lander mission, he engaged the public with his knowledge, charisma and enthusiasm, and played a leading role in the development of mass spectrometry equipment for the Rosetta comet orbiter and lander with the European Space Agency.

Colin’s archive of professional and working papers was deposited with the Royal Society in 2018. The diverse collection incorporates scientific data, international correspondence, personal notes between scientists, and images of fragments of the other worlds he explored in his lab. I’ve had the privilege of helping to catalogue the collection while volunteering in the Royal Society Archives.


A fragment of the Moon collected by the Soviet Luna 24 mission. Although the return capsule containing the sample came back to Earth, the probe itself is still on the Moon, in the Mare Crisium. Having worked out where Mare Crisium is, I have spent some time moongazing and pondering the little space craft still up there. A Luna 25 mission is planned for 2021 by the Russian Federal Space Programme. Image taken while Colin Pillinger was working at the University of Cambridge.


The collection includes a receipt and bag for a 105g lunar sample from Apollo 11. Colin’s autobiography, ‘My Life on Mars’ , supplies valuable context for the records, including his tale of how he collected the sample from the Science Research Council in London and carried it in his briefcase on the train. Tipped off by colleagues that journalists were waiting for him, he got off at Bath and took the bus to Bristol with his piece of the Moon.

The sample generated enormous public interest, readily apparent in a letter in the collection from an enterprising individual requesting just a “pinch of moon dust” so he could see what effect it would have on the growth of his pumpkins. And the story continues: lunar samples from the Apollo missions are still studied fifty years on, and in January 2019 it was announced that a sample from Apollo 14 contains what is thought to be a 3.9 billion-year-old Earth meteorite, picked up from the Moon.

Also featured in the collection are notes for BBC coverage of the Apollo missions, when Colin and other experts explained and demonstrated the relevant science on TV. This sounds like fun, and I was particularly taken with a suggestion to demonstrate fault formation on the Moon through the use of hot chocolate or Ovaltine. Sadly, I haven’t yet located Colin’s broadcasts in the online BBC Apollo archive.


Inside the laboratory. Image taken while Colin Pillinger was working at the University of Cambridge.


The Royal Society also played a crucial role in bringing Soviet lunar samples for analysis in the UK, and made Colin Pillinger the curator. The documents in the collection reveal this remarkable cooperation between scientists, despite the Cold War. Digitising images in the collection of Moon samples from the Russian Luna 24 mission of 1976 reveals grains varied in texture and brightness. Some are glassy, and some are pitted with miniature craters, like tiny moons. Slides take us inside the laboratory, showing the equipment used and sample containers with Russian labels.


These Russian sample containers hint at the extraordinary co-operation between scientists during the Cold War, facilitated by the Royal Society. Image taken while Colin Pillinger was working at the University of Cambridge


This collection documents the role of Colin Pillinger, the Royal Society and the UK in this historic period of space exploration, and comes at a time of renewed interest and investment in lunar exploration. The catalogue for records associated with the Russian Luna missions is complete, so you can look at the records online, and the Apollo mission part of the collection will be available soon. You can also watch Colin Pillinger’s 2012 Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize Lecture ‘Stones from the sky: A heaven-sent opportunity to talk about science’ on the Royal Society’s website.


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