New British stamps probe the depths of our solar system

Although never really considered a member of the space club, the United Kingdom has issued a set of stamps marking that nation’s role in the exploration of space. The stamps, released Oct. 18, are exciting in that they show images of the solar system taken from European Space Agency probes, partly funded by Britain. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first British satellite, Ariel 1, launched April 26, 1962 from Cape Canaveral. All six of the Ariel satellites, used for research of the ionosphere and cosmic X-rays, were launched from Cape Canaveral. Britain did launch one satellite, Prospero, from a site in Australia busing the British Black Arrow launch vehicle. After that the British abandoned efforts to create their own launch vehicle and have launched satellites by contracting the services to NASA.

During the space race, Britain’s Jodrell Bank radio telescope was used for communications and tracking. Britain has a policy of not supporting manned spaceflight, so it did not participate in the Skylab program. The first Briton in space, Helen Sharman, flew in 1991 aboard Soyuz TM-12/11 and visited the Mir space station. She was funded by a co-operative arrangement between the Soviet Union and British corporate sponsors. Other British astronauts have either been space tourists, or have flown as NASA astronauts with dual citizenship. In total, just seven Britons have been in space. As a result, British efforts have been focused on satellites and probes through the European Space Agency (ESA). Britain is a major contributor to the agency, contributing €240 million (about $305 million) a year. Canada, through the Canadian Space Agency, is an associate member of the agency, contributing $24 million a year.

The British stamps feature six photographs captured by ESA probes. One first-class stamp uses an image taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), midway between the Earth and the sun, that depicts particles being ejected from the solar surface. A second first-class stamp uses an image of Venus taken from the Venus Express probe that shows clouds in the southern hemisphere of the second planet out from the Sun. A 77-pence stamp shows ice within a 35-kilometre-wide impact crater on Mars, photographed by the Mars Express probe. A second 77-pence stamp shows the asteroid Lutetia taken by the probe Rosetta, which passed within 800 kilometres of the asteroid on route to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Majestic Saturn is the topic of a £1.28 stamp with a photograph taken by the Cassini probe showing the ringed planet illuminated by the sun behind, highlighting its famous rings.

Finally, a second £1.28 stamp shows Saturn’s largest moon Titan. The photograph was taken in 2005 by Cassini’s Huygens probe, which parachuted through the atmosphere of Titan for a soft landing on its surface. It was the first landing ever achieved in the outer solar system. Although Huygens only survived a short time, it also sent a single photograph from the surface of the moon. Titan has been a matter of scientific interest, as the only natural satellite with a dense atmosphere and the only body other than Earth to have known stable bodies of surface liquid. In addition to the stamps, Royal Mail is offering addressed first-day covers, and a set of postcards using the stamp designs.

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