By Guest Author 03/05/2019

Erin Maessen

Six of New Zealand’s ‘space pioneers’ have been commemorated in a new series of stamps launched by New Zealand Post.

Designed by Hannah Fortune, and sprinkled with a layer of real meteorite dust, the stamps feature homegrown talent including Beatrice Hill Tinsley, Charles Gifford and Sir William Pickering.

New Zealand Post chair Jackie Lloyd said 2019 was “an auspicious year for astronomy, as we look back on fifty years since the moon landing”. We may lack the resources of a large space programme like the one that sent Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969, but New Zealanders have still made remarkable contributions to the field of astronomy.

New Zealand’s clear skies are ideal for stargazing. At certain times of year, a feature of the Milky Way known as the ‘galactic bulge’ appears directly overhead. This region of space contains more visible stars than any other part of the night sky, and as a result there are more stars to be seen from New Zealand than from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Many of New Zealand’s astronomers have been amateurs, who have truly earned the name pioneers, often building their own telescopes or observatories in order to study the skies.

As part of the launch, guests were invited into the planetarium for a special show. From comfortable reclined seats they were able to travel through space to see where each of these space pioneers had their domain.

Beatrice Hill Tinsley (1941 – 1981) was a cosmologist whose work was instrumental to understanding how galaxies evolve, including the realisation that galaxies and stars undergo change in a relatively short timeframe. She also showed that the universe is expanding over time and will continue to do so indefinitely – this was in contrast to the previously-held theory that the universe would eventually reach a limit and collapse inwards. Among other tributes, her name has been given to an asteroid, 3087 Beatrice Tinsley, and to Mount Tinsley in Fiordland.

Regarding her inclusion on the stamp, Beatrice’s daughter Teresa Tinsley commented in a statement “my depth of gratitude is as big as the universe”, both for the recognition of her mother’s achievements, and at the showcasing of a positive female role model in STEM.

Astronomer Charles Gifford (1861 – 1948) used mathematics to prove that the craters on the moon’s surface were formed as a result of impacts from meteors. Previously these craters had been thought to result from volcanic activity. He contributed regular articles on astronomy for the general public to Wellington’s Evening Post, and his columns were later republished as a series of 14 booklets by the name of In starry skies. The asteroid 4819 Gifford is named after him, and he set up the Gifford Observatory in Wellington.

Rocket scientist Sir William Pickering (1910 – 2004) was director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena for 22 years. He was involved in launching a number of different missions, focusing on the unmanned space programme – when he retired from JPL in 1976 it was after seeing off the Viking 1 spacecraft on its way to Mars. He was the guest of honour at the re-opening of the Gifford Observatory in 2002, a place that he had frequently enjoyed as a student. Mount Pickering in Fiordland is named after him.

Albert Jones (1920 – 2013), a visual astronomer, made observations of more than 500,000 stars over a seventy-year period. All of his observations were made on a telescope he built himself at home, and he was able to make extremely precise visual estimates of the brightness of stars. He co-discovered two comets, and in 1987 a supernova, or dying star, within the large Magellanic cloud. The asteroid 3152 Jones is named after him.

Asteroid hunters

The only living individuals to be included in the stamp series, Alan Gilmore and Pamela Kilmartin are discoverers who have spent a lifetime observing comets and near-earth asteroids, and have co-discovered 41 minor planets. They were also special guests at the launch event.

“I was always interested in stars”, explained Alan, who recalled a meteor sighting as a child as one early example. He also credited one of the other space pioneers for his entry into the field. At a public session one night at the Carter Observatory there were bundles of Charles Gifford’s newspaper articles for sale, “and those got me started”.

Alan continued to read about astronomy in books from the Hutt Intermediate library, and in 1958 discovered one with instructions to make his own telescope, which he promptly did. By 1959 he was “getting a bit tired of just looking round the skies”, and wrote to the Carter Observatory about putting his telescope to a more practical use. Alan was told to contact another of the ‘space pioneers’, Albert Jones, who helped him get started observing and graphing the brightness of variable stars, and later observing the brightness of comets.

Alan’s next involvement in astronomy was site testing, and he spent several school holidays on various hilltops, measuring factors such as air turbulence in order to determine the best location for a new observatory. After studying physics at Victoria University, he began working for the Carter Observatory measuring the positions of southern hemisphere stars and comets.

Pamela joined Alan at the Carter Observatory in 1973. She started in astronomy in Auckland, measuring the brightness of variable stars, and then moved to Carter Observatory to take the position of information officer. As well as spending time on the telescopes, the role also involved talking about astronomy to the public.

Alan and Pam worked together observing comets and asteroids, and following their movements. A device that tracked stars with a photographic plate allowed these movements to be viewed as a point rather than a smear. Pam explained: “There were a lot of sums involved, in producing a position precise enough to calculate a reasonable orbit.”

Pam and Alan moved to Tekapo in 1980 to work for Canterbury University at the Mount John observatory, where they did “all kinds of jobs”, including moving snow off the roads, looking after visitors to the observatory, and of course continuing the near-earth object programme. Thanks to the internet, they often track objects discovered mere hours before, most of which are identified in Arizona or Hawaii.

Despite retiring in 2014, their observation work continues. Alan and Pam said that they planned to be back up at the telescope as soon as they returned to Tekapo the day after the launch. They are also working on developing a home observatory.

0 Responses to “New Zealand’s space pioneers stamp their mark”

  • Thanks Erin. This is great. A well deserved honour for all. I think particularly nice to see Pam and Alan honoured this way while they are still observing (may it be forever).

  • When astronomy historian William Sheehan turned up in Wellington, he already knew that I was one of the few who could correctly call Algernon Charles Gifford Uncle Charlie, as I had tracked down for him the 1924 paper that he had written that proved that the moon craters were from impacts and not volcanic in origin.

    I invited Bill and Charlie’s eldest grand-daughter to visit the Silverstream house in Upper Hutt that Charlie and his wife Susie had retired to. There was nobody home, so we sat on the verandah of the house waiting for the owner to arrive, to ask to be shown inside. We had a long conversation about the man and his life, that was very powerful to tell the historian more about the man and not just his works. The owners never turned up, so they never knew they had strangers there for a couple of hours.

    After Susie died I had sneezed my way through the thousands of books that Charlie had collected in the big room inside, so I was familiar with the inside of the house. His mountaineering photographs were handed to the NZ Alpine Club, his astronomy books to the Carter Observatory, his paintings, other photographs and documents (including the documents from his colleague Alexander Bickerton) went to the Turnbull Library.

    Bill wrote up the moon story for Sky and Telescope “The Forgotten Scientist who Solved Lunar Craters”. I have family bound copies of Charlie’s 1930s Evening Post astronomy articles “In Starry Skies”, under the pseudonym ‘Omega Centauri’.