Stamps and Space

28 April 2017

Our Assistant Curator Georgina becomes an astronomer for a day as she deep dives into our collection to find the best of Space on the stamps.

It has been 60 years since The Sky at Night was first broadcasted on the BBC, which got me interested in what other stamps in our collection look at space and what I can learn from them. The Sky at Night had it’s own stamp issue in 2013 – celebrating it’s 50th anniversary – but they are not the only stamps that look at the theme of space and what makes up our solar system.

The Sky at Night:

Two stamps depicting scientific images of Nebula.

Cat’s Eye Nebula, 50p, The Sky at Night, 2007 & Helix Nebula, 50p, The Sky at Night, 2007

The Sky at Night was a monthly programme on the BBC that looked at our solar system and what you could see in our sky in the upcoming month. The programme was first shown on the 24th of April 1957 and was presented by Sir Patrick Moore. Moore was a self-taught astronomer and would present all but one show in the series of 56 years, making it the longest-running show with the same presenter. The last episode of The Sky at Night was broadcasted on the 7th of January 2013, though Moore had died the month before.

Our solar system:

Two stamps; one depicting an asteroid called Lutetia and the other is an image of the sun.

Lutetia, 77p, Space Science, 2012 & Sun, 1st NVI, Space Science, 2012

Our solar system was formed around 4.5 billion years ago, possibly when a supernova caused a giant dust cloud to collapse. That sounds extremely strange but when the cloud collapsed it produced a solar nebula, which is basically a spinning disk. This disk has a central gravitational pull that began to draw in material producing our sun at the centre of the solar system and the surrounding clumps of material became planets and asteroids.

A miniature sheet of four stamps depicting scientific images of space.

Astronomy, Miniature Sheet, 1st NVI, 2002

Many of us were taught at school that our solar system was made up of 9 planets but now with further research Pluto has been downgraded. Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, an American astronomer, working in Arizona. To be labelled a planet, the body must meet three criteria set out by the International Astronomical Union and unfortunately, Pluto fails the third one. It ‘has not cleared its neighboring region or other objects’, which means that there are still large objects within its vicinity and it hasn’t achieved gravitational dominance. Though this definition it is still questioned and some scientists want Pluto reinstated as a planet.

Halley’s Comet:

A stamp depicting an image of a comet with the words 'maybe twice in a lifetime' written across it.

Twice in a lifetime, 31p, Halley’s Comet, 1986

Halley’s comet has appeared to the naked eye for thousands of years but its regularity was determined by Edmond Halley, a British astronomer, in 1705. The comet appears every 75 to 76 years and is the only comet that could be seen by a person twice in their life. It should next appear in 2061. Halley’s comet was observed by spacecraft in 1986, which allowed scientists to establish its composition.

A stamp depicting an image of a comet orbiting the sun producing a tail.

Comet orbiting Sun and Planet, 34p, Halley’s Comet, 1986

Comets are most recognisable for their tails, which are produced when the comet orbits the sun and is knocked slightly off its course causing a tail of released gas. The stamps were produced by British artist Ralph Steadman with his free and expressive artwork. We are lucky enough to have the original pieces in our collection here at The Postal Museum, which look at the appearance of the comets throughout the years.

A stamp depicting scientists in front of a telescope.

Royal Astronomical Society, 1/9, Anniversaries (3rd Series), 1970

Stamps have covered so many different themes and events that they are a great way to learn about history and general knowledge. Here I’ve been able to learn a bit more about our solar system, but next time who knows what more there is to find out. I hope one day to finally win a game of Trivial Pursuit with a fact I learned through looking into our amazing stamp collection here at The Postal Museum.

We can’t wait to welcome you to our new Discovery Room from July 2017, where you will be able to browse and explore our collections.

Sign up here to be the first to know about our opening date.

– Georgina Tomlinson, Assistant Curator (Philately)