2012 Space Science.jpg
2012  Space Science

A bold and impressive set of six stamps marking the 50th anniversary of the launch of the UK’s first satellite, Ariel 1. In fact, Royal Mail missed the actual anniversary by six months – Ariel 1 was launched in April 1962, whereas the set was issued on October 16.

There were six Ariel satellites in all before the series ended in 1979, including the pioneering X-ray observatory Ariel 5. Nowadays, the UK is part of the European Space Agency, founded in 1975, and no longer has an independent space programme. Hence the illustrations for this set are images from ESA missions in which UK scientists play leading roles. Whereas previous astronomy issues depicted deep-space subjects, this time the designers concentrated on the Solar System, starting with the Sun and moving outwards. The set consists of three values, each with two different designs, and a few words of explanation at the bottom of each stamp.

• 1st class. The Sun ejecting a massive prominence, as seen in extreme ultraviolet light by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint ESA–NASA satellite. The image used appears to be this one from April 2004, rotated and flipped.
• 1st class. An ultraviolet image of the swirling clouds of Venus taken by ESA’s Venus Express probe in July 2007.
• 77p. A famous image of ice inside a crater near the north pole of Mars taken by ESA’s Mars Express in 2005.
• 77p. A close-up of the asteroid Lutetia, taken by ESA’s Rosetta mission in 2010 while on its way to its main target, Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
• £1.28. The fascinating rings of Saturn backlit by the Sun, viewed from the NASA–ESA Cassini spacecraft orbiting the planet in September 2006.
• £1.28. A false-colour view of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in both infrared and visible light. The infrared cuts through the enveloping clouds to reveal subtle surface markings on Titan.

All six stamps were also issued in a presentation pack with text by the British science writer Stuart Clark. All in all, this was an impressive advertisement for the prominent role that the UK plays in space exploration.

Stanley Gibbons nos. (to come)