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Exploring astronomy through philately

25 October 2019

Postal agencies have long commemorated astronauts, celestial objects, and spacecraft. A collector highlights some of her favorite items.

In 1887 the government of Brazil issued a postage stamp depicting the Southern Cross. It was the first known stamp with an astronomy theme. Since then hundreds of stamps depicting astronomical objects, famed astronomers and astrophysicists, and milestones in spaceflight have been issued by postal services around the world. That means there are a lot of great memorabilia out there for those like me who love both astronomy and philately, the collection and study of postage stamps.

Collectible postage comes in many forms. Stamps are frequently affixed to specially designed envelopes called first-day covers. These often have a design known as a cachet, an illustration depicting the event or theme being celebrated, as seen on the left-hand side of the Halley’s Comet issues described below. The cachet may be a printed image or a piece of silky fabric fused to the envelope; in some cases it is bordered with 22-karat gold. The covers, some of which are issued as sets, are stamped on the first day of issue. Sometimes the postmarks further reinforce the theme.

Here is a sampling of astronomy-themed stamps and envelopes in my collection, which I’ve amassed from various sources including auctions, antique shops, and other collectors.

Isaac Newton stamps

Honoring Newton. In 1987 the UK’s Royal Mail issued four stamps marking the 300th anniversary of Isaac Newton’s Principia. Despite their small size, the stamps are bursting with information about Newton’s accomplishments. The 34-pence stamp portrays a satellite along with Newton’s insights on projectile motion and orbits. The 22-pence stamp honors his study of planetary motion through the depiction of six planets orbiting the Sun, on top of which is an impressive prominence.

Samanta Chandra Sekhar.

Astronomy in India. In 2001 the India Post celebrated the life of 19th-century astronomer Samanta Chandra Sekhar with a 3-rupee stamp. Unexposed to telescope technology from other parts of the world, Sekhar conducted observations using homemade bamboo instruments. He recorded his observations and made calculations in a small book, the Siddhanta Darpana. The stamp depicts Sekhar and one of his instruments, the gola-yantra (an armillary sphere). It is affixed to a first-day cover that illustrates modern-day Indian astronomy with the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope in Khodad, India.

Gravitational waves stamp.

Celebrating LIGO. In 2015 the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory directly detected gravitational radiation emitted by two black holes. The Federal Ministry of Finance in Germany celebrated the achievement in 2017 by issuing a vibrant green stamp adorned with a numerical-relativity simulation of gravitational waves that was completed at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching.

Halley's comet.

Cometary visitor. The Royal Mail marked the 1986 return of Halley’s Comet with a set of four stamps. Depicted in the stamps, clockwise from top left: the comet zipping by the planets as it orbits the Sun; the comet captioned with “Maybe twice in a lifetime”; a representation of astronomer Edmond Halley as the comet; and Giotto, a spacecraft launched in 1985 to investigate the comet. The stamps were made available either individually, bundled in a presentation pack, or affixed to beautiful silk covers.

Hera mission to asteroid.

Asteroid Day. In 2018 the Luxembourg Post, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), issued a stamp commemorating Asteroid Day, which is observed on 30 June each year. The 0.70-euro stamp previews a proposed 2024 ESA double-spacecraft mission called Hera to the binary asteroid Didymos. The goal is to monitor the change to the asteroid’s orbit caused by a planned collision in 2022 with NASA’s DART spacecraft. The exercise could inform future efforts to deflect asteroids that pose a threat to Earth. The stamp features an illustration of Didymos flanked by one of the Hera satellites. There is an attractive circular frank atop the accompanying information booklet that illustrates the solar system, including the asteroid belt.

Canada observatories.

Canadian astronomy. In honor of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, the Canada Post issued a small booklet with 10 self-adhesive stamps and 10 envelope sticker seals. The small seals are designed with various nebulae and galaxies, including the Witch Head Nebula, the Orion Nebula, and the Milky Way. The stamps pair composite images of nebulae with associated observatories: the Eagle Nebula with the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope, and the Horsehead Nebula with the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.

International Geophysical Year.

Global collaboration. From July 1957 to December 1958, scientists from 67 countries participated in various Earth science projects as part of the International Geophysical Year. To mark the occasion, the US Postal Service issued a stamp featuring a striking illustration of the Sun, which was in the most active phase of its 11-year cycle. Also depicted is a portion of Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel painting, The Creation of Adam, as a nod to our natural curiosity and desire to understand our place in the universe.

Cosmonautics Day stamp.

Leaving Earth. Stamps have also commemorated the space race between the US and the Soviet Union. In 1959 the Soviets launched Luna 1, the first spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravity and reach close proximity to the Moon. The intended lunar impact mission failed when the spacecraft missed the Moon’s surface by some 6000 kilometers. Cuba celebrated the 25th anniversary of Luna 1 in 1984 with a sheetlet that depicts the probe soaring near the Moon, with Earth in the background. The stamp accompanied another six that were issued to celebrate Cosmonautics Day, on 12 April.

Valery Bykovsky and Valentina Tereshkova.

Soviet spaceflight. In 1963 the Soviet Union issued a commemorative stamp celebrating the successful launches of two crewed spacecraft, which had occurred in June of that year. Vostok 5 was piloted by Valery Bykovsky; Vostok 6 was helmed by Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go into space. The two cosmonauts successfully communicated with each other as they orbited Earth at the same time. Together the stamps present an interesting juxtaposition, with the cosmonauts at opposite ends and the orbits of the spacecraft between them.

Apollo 11 stamps.

First Moon landing. This year the space community celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Postal services from Grenada to Guernsey to the Pitcairn Islands celebrated the event through commemorative stamps. The US Postal Service issued a set of Forever Stamps on 19 July. The two stamp designs depict the famous photo by Neil Armstrong of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface and the landing site at the Sea of Tranquility.

Katrin Raynor-Evans is an amateur astronomer and astronomy writer. She is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the European Astronomical Society and the Astro Space Stamp Society. She welcomes email from fellow and aspiring astrophilately enthusiasts.

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