Pillinger, who championed the Beagle 2 project despite some mocking by the public, died at his home in Cambridge, in southeast England, after suffering a brain haemorrhage.
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."