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British space scientist Colin Pillinger hailed as 'a visionary and an inspirational leader'

Colin Pillinger, who championed the search for signs of life on Mars, passed away at his home in Cambridge, England. 

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Colin Pillinger, shown in this 2003 photo, captured the popular imagination with his failed attempt to land a probe on Mars

Max Nash/AP/File

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The British space scientist Colin Pillinger, best known for his failed attempt in 2003 to put a spacecraft called Beagle 2 on Mars, has died, fellow scientists said.

Pillinger, who championed the Beagle 2 project despite some mocking by the public, died at his home in Cambridge, in south-east England.

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Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, hailed Pillinger as one of the nation's leading planetary scientists.

"He was of course a character – an archetype eccentric professor," Rees said. "He was committed to space exploration and to its broader role in science education."

Beagle 2 was named after the ship Charles Darwin sailed in when he formulated his theory of evolution. It was built by British scientists for about 50 million pounds ($85 million).

The craft was taken to Mars aboard the European Space Agency's orbiter Mars Express, but then disappeared without trace after being dropped off to make its landing.

Colleagues and friends praised his zeal and planetary curiosity.

"Colin was a visionary and an inspirational leader, and had a wonderfully involving interaction with the media," said Andrew Coates, the head of planetary science group at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at the University College London. "He really raised our hopes of actually going to Mars in 2003 to look for past or present life."

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Larry King)