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Collect the cosmos in stamps

While the universe is vast, this selection of stamps can shrink it down to a manageable size.
RELATED TOPICS: ASTRONOMY | SKY EVENTS
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For Raynor-Evans there is no better way to remember the world's most historical events than with the simple postage stamps created to commemorate them.

Katrin Raynor-Evans
Imagine carrying the universe in your pocket before sending it halfway across the world. Of course, you can’t actually carry the entirety of the universe, but you can carry a small, weightless surrogate that’s just as beautiful. These could include a colorful array of astronauts, rockets, galaxies, and nebulae, on canvases about 1 inch in size.

You may have guessed that I’m talking about postage stamps. I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy, but I didn’t turn my attention to stamp collecting until a few years ago. This new hobby ignited when, while leafing through my father’s stamp collection, I spotted a science-fiction-themed stamp. I soon wondered what other topics stamps could pay tribute to — particularly, astronomical ones. After some research, I realized I could bring my love of the cosmos and this new hobby together. From then on, I was captivated.

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Raynor-Evans has been a fan of the night sky her whole life, but she now keeps the universe close to her in stamp form. Here the author exhibits a collection of stamps and first day covers at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, at National Museum Wales in Cardiff.

Katrin Raynor-Evans
Philately is the collection and study of postage stamps and associated materials, such as first day covers — an envelope or card with a stamp cancelled on the first day that stamp was sold. Postal stationery, miniature sheets, full sets of newly issued stamps, special handstamps, and autographs all contribute to the world of stamp collecting as well.

Small yet vibrant and educational, stamps are also a fantastic way of documenting and commemorating scientific discoveries, providing a unique historical record. Since the release of the first astronomy-themed stamp — a blue stamp issued in Brazil in 1887 depicting the constellation Crux the Southern Cross — countries all over the world have been issuing stamps to celebrate the wonders of the sky and the achievements made by humankind.

Remembering historical events is exciting and important to us. And what better way to recognize these milestones than to look at how the world has commemorated them with the simple postage stamp throughout time?

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The Dominican Republic issued a stamp depicting Hale-Bopp in 1997.

Katrin Raynor-Evans

The Royal Astronomical Society’s bicentennial

On January 12, 2020, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) celebrated its 200th anniversary. Located in London, the RAS is an organization actively promoting the study of astronomy, cosmology, solar system sciences, and geophysics.

In February, the British postal service, the Royal Mail, issued a special set of stamps to commemorate the group’s bicentenary. Designed in collaboration with the RAS, the images reflect scenes of discovery and research undertaken by British astronomers and astrophysicists including Stephen Hawking and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

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A stamp commemorating the Mariner 10 mission.

Katrin Raynor-Evans
“Visions of the Universe,” comprises eight illustrated stamps with a colorful array of astronomical objects and phenomena, including the stunning Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), rapidly rotating neutron stars, black holes, and the rubber-duck-shaped Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. 
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The Royal Astronomical Society issued a special set of stamps known as "Visions of the Universe" to commemorate the group's bicentenary. 

Katrin Raynor-Evans
This was not the first RAS anniversary celebrated with stamps. In 1970, the Royal Mail issued a stamp commemorating theorganization’s 150th anniversary. It depicted the Society’s first president, William Herschel, his son John, and Francis Baily, the founders of the RAS, standing in front of Herschel’s famous 40-foot telescope. This probably won’t be the last time RAS is remembered through these small pieces of art, as the society has been a part of the astronomical world for so long.
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The Royal Astronomical Society celebrated their 150th anniversary with a stamp depicting the group's founders — William Herschel, John Herschel, and Francis Baily — in front of Herschel's famous 40-foot telescope.

Katrin Raynor-Evans

The world watches Hale-Bopp fly by

Continuing our honoring of historical astronomical events, Comet C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp was the most observed comet of the 20th century, slowly traversing our skies over the course of approximately 18 months. Hale-Bopp shone bright at magnitude –1 and was visible to the naked eye, even in light-polluted towns and cities.

In 1997, the Dominican Republic issued a stamp depicting the comet positioned against a tropical pink and yellow sky. When a comet nears its closest approach to the Sun, it can develop two tails as dust particles are liberated from within its icy nucleus. Solar radiation blows gas and dust from the comet’s center, forming an ion tail and a dust tail. The Dominican Republic stamp depicts this occurrence, as Hale-Bopp is shown with its two tails of gas and dust flying behind it.

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The trail of comet Hale-Bopp

Katrin Raynor-Evans
In 2007, the coastal African country of Guinea issued a set of miniature sheets to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hale-Bopp’s show. The collection of four stamps shows discoverers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp set against various backgrounds, including images of the comet and an illustration of Charles Messier, a nod to one of the greatest comet hunters in history.

Some stamp collectors even made their own covers — an envelope covered in the desired stamps and mailed by the postal service with the intention of becoming a collectible — to celebrate the comet. Avid collectors mailed their covers to Cloudcroft, New Mexico, to have them hand stamped and mailed back from the location where Hale made the first discovery of the comet.
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Famous cartoonist Ralph Steadman illustrated four stamps issued by the Royal Mail to celebrate the return of Halley's comet in 1986.

Katrin Raynor-Evans

Comet Halley’s 1986 return

Comet 1P/Halley, known to most as Halley’s Comet, is perhaps the most famous short-period comet in history — its return time of 76 years has allowed some people to view this once-in-a-lifetime event twice. Although it’s named after astronomer Edmond Halley, records of the comet date back as far as 240 B.C. in China. It was even embroidered into the Bayeux Tapestry, a famous cloth depicting hundreds of years of world events. 

And on January 24, 1985, amateur astronomer and Astronomy columnist Stephen James O’Meara became the first person to visually observe Halley’s Comet, then at magnitude 19.6, as it approached the Sun for its February 9, 1986 return. He used a home-built 24-inch telescope on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii to spot it.

Also in 1985, on July 2, the European Space Agency launched the robotic Giotto spacecraft to get up close and personal with the infamous comet. The next year, between March 12 and 15, 1986, the spacecraft approached the comet to within 370 miles (596 kilometers) and collected an impressive amount of data.

To celebrate the comet’s 1986 return to our night skies, countries around the world — from the Cook Islands in the South Pacific to Paraguay in South America — produced stamps. The Royal Mail issued a fantastic set of four stamps illustrated by the famous cartoonist Ralph Steadman. The selection is colorful and imaginative, depicting scenes such as discoverer Edmond Halley as a comically disgruntled comet; two comets in the sky (representing seeing Halley twice in a lifetime); the Giotto encounter; and the comet rounding the Sun.

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In addition to the stamps, first day covers included cachet designs to celebrate Halley's comet.
Katrin Raynor-Evans
In addition, cachet designs — illustrations or inscriptions stamped on an envelope — printed on first day covers included images of the comet’s orbit, as well as portraits of Halley and the Giotto spacecraft.

Commemorating the Apollo missions

Giotto wasn’t the only spacecraft to receive the special honor of becoming a stamp. Achievements in spacecraft development and spaceflight have been celebrated on stamps for decades — and none more so than the Apollo missions. In 2019, the United States Postal Service (USPS) issued two Forever stamps to commemorate the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the Moon. The stamps illustrate the Apollo 11 landing site in Mare Tranquillitatis, or the Sea of Tranquility, and the iconic photograph of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong.
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Two Forever stamps issued by the United States Postal Service to commemorate the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the Moon. 

Katrin Raynor-Evans
The 50th anniversary of Apollo 13’s ill-fated flight in April 1970 was marked in 2020. Apollo 13 was supposed to be the third mission to land on the Moon, until Commander James Lovell, Command Module Pilot John Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise lost power in their spacecraft after an oxygen tank exploded two days into their mission. The crew was left without oxygen and water supplies, forcing them and their NASA counterparts on the ground to think on their feet to get the group back to Earth. Instead of landing on the Moon, the three astronauts made it back home safely on April 17.
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Romania issued a miniature stamp sheet of Apollo 13's lunar module splashdown and portraits of the crew in remembrance of the mission's 50th anniversary. 

Katrin Raynor-Evans
Romania issued a miniature stamp sheet in June of 1970 which shows four value stamps featuring the splashdown of the lunar module with its parachutes deployed. Bordering these are four non-value stamps showcasing portraits of the crew and the Apollo 13 emblem. 

Also in 1970, the Republic of Rwanda issued a set of eight stamps to celebrate the accomplishments of the space race. The stamps tell the story of the race to the Moon, from humans reaching Earth orbit to the first Moon landing. While these stamps can’t capture the exact wonder and amazement the Apollo era brought, they still serve as a nice reminder of this great human accomplishment.

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Stamp issued to commemorate Mariner 10. 

Katrin Raynor-Evans

Celebrating modern astronomical events

A number of astronomical events took place in 2020: Eclipses, the summer solstice, meteor showers, and planetary observing all have a special place on our observational calendars, giving everyone a chance to look into the sky and spend a little less time on other worries. Annually, these events allow people to enjoy the wonders of the universe we live in, so much so that they also have been celebrated on stamps.
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In 2017, the United States Postal Service issued their first Forever Stamp that used thermochromic ink to celebrate the Great American Eclipse. 

Katrin Raynor-Evans
Six eclipses will have graced our skies by the end of the year. This includes the annular solar eclipse of June 21 and the total solar eclipse occurring December 14. Such rare astronomical events have been long been commemorated on stamps — for example, the Great American Eclipse, which was visible along a narrow path across the United States on August 21, 2017. A few months before, on June 20, 2017, the USPS issued their first Forever Stamp using thermochromic ink, which changes color in response to heat, to celebrate this eclipse. “The Total Eclipse of the Sun” stamps depict the Sun obscured by the Moon; when heat is applied to the stamp’s surface, the eclipse image disappears, revealing the Full Moon.
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A feat of astronomical engineering, Stonehenge is a favorite amongst astronomers and stamp collectors alike. 

Katrin Raynor-Evans
The summer solstice is celebrated across the globe, ushering in the first official day of the hot season. But it’s also become a major holiday at the prehistoric astronomical site Stonehenge, where the Sun peers perfectly through the stone gates while rising on the morning of the summer solstice. The iconic stone circle itself is a favorite for astronomers and stamp collectors alike, as much a mystery as a feat of astronomical engineering. Stonehenge has been featured on a set British “World Heritage Site” stamps in 2005 and on the 1997 “Wonders of the World” stamps issued by The Republic of The Gambia.

From objects in space, such as comets, star clusters, and black holes, to the feats of human exploration, astronomy has been globally celebrated on stamps for over a hundred years. Philately is a wonderful and vibrant way to look back and catalog the exceptional discoveries made throughout history. The hobby allows us to celebrate our growing knowledge of this beautiful and dynamic universe, and even send it around the world so that someone else can capture the universe in a space as small as a postage stamp.

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