by Ian Ridpath
There are estimated to be as many galaxies visible in the Universe as there are stars in the Milky way — well over 100,000 million. So it’s surprising that not many of them have featured on stamps. Ten years ago a stamp with a galaxy as its main subject is the $1.20 from this 1992 magnificent Australian astronomy set which features the spiral galaxy NGC 2997 in Antlia.
A close second is an illustration of the Andromeda Galaxy, partly obscured by a small telescope, on a 1988 stamp from Barbados (SG 874) commemorating the 25th anniversary of the little-known Harry Bayley Observatory. However, the artwork is inferior to the colour photograph used for the Australian stamp. The Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, and the Sombrero Galaxy, M10l, appeared in black and white on a 1942 Mexican set (now rather rare and costly) commemorating the opening of Tonantzintia Observatory. The Small Magellanic Cloud, a neighbour galaxy of our Milky Way, was shown on a 1971 Argentinean stamp commemorating Cordoba Observatory (SG 1381).
Most of the other galaxies on stamps are in the background of observatories. For example, a stamp from France (SG 1589) showing the radio telescope at Nancay also has a drawing of a barred spiral galaxy that looks like NGC 1300 in Eridanus. The stamp itself is dated 1963 but was issued as part of a set with two others featuring the Pleumeur-Bodou satellite ground station in 1962. NGC 1300 features again on a 1968 stamp from Indonesia celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Bosscha Observatory (SG 1207).
Another French stamp, this one from 1970 (SG 1888), shows the Haute Province Observatory with M51 in the sky above. M51 is of Considerable historical interest since it was the first galaxy in which spiral structure was noted, by Lord Rosse in 1845 with his giant reflecting telescope at Birr Castle, Ireland. This galaxy, by the way, is described in the Gibbons catalogue as a “nebula”.
M51, or a stylized representation of it, features again in the sky over Ondrejov Observatory on a Czech stamp (SG 1674) commemorating the 13th International Astronomical Union congress held in Prague in August 1967. The dome shown on the stamp contains a 79-inch reflector that was dedicated during the meeting.
Another photograph of a galaxy is M81 in Ursa Major, one of the most beautiful spirals, on a Belgian stamp of 1982 (SG 2684) also featuring a telescope of the Royal Observatory in Brussels. However, the galaxy picture is a mirror image, evidently having been flipped during printing.
Some galaxies are distinctly strange in appearance and behaviour. One of the most remarkable is Centaurus A, a strong radio source. Optically it looks like an elliptical galaxy with an encircling lane of dark dust. It is now thought that this galaxy is the result of the merger of an elliptical galaxy with a spiral. The merger may somehow account for the radio activity. The galaxy is shown on a Swedish stamp from 1987 (SG 1373) commemorating the Nobel Prize awarded to the British radio astronomer Martin Ryle. Of course, there may be other galaxies lurking somewhere on stamps that I haven’t yet found, If so, I would welcome help from other readers in obtaining them.