Tributes for NZ space scientist

06:48, Mar 17 2010

Tributes flowed today for renowned New Zealand space scientist Sir William Ian Axford, who died at his Napier home at the weekend after a long illness. He was 77.

Sir Ian, who is survived by his wife Joy and four adult children, worked on many American and European space probes, such as Voyager and Giotto designing robot craft and calculating orbits

"His achievements were not only as a researcher, but also as a leader of science organisations," said Garth Carnaby, president of New Zealand's science academy, the Royal Society.

"Sir Ian was one of New Zealand's most remarkable scientists and had a distinguished international career".

Sir Ian was widely regarded as a "rock star" of New Zealand science, and the society awarded him its top science honour, the Rutherford Medal, in 1995, "for his excellent contribution to fundamental research which has led to a deeper understanding of the nature of planetary magnetospheres, comets, interplanetary space, the behaviour of interstellar gas and the origin of cosmic rays."

At the end of 1995, he was made a Knight Bachelor - one of the last under the imperial system before the introduction of New Zealand honours - one year on from having been named New Zealander of the Year.

Born in Dannevirke, January 2, 1933, Sir Ian was educated at Napier Boys' High, and attended university at Canterbury, Manchester and Cambridge, where he took his PhD in 1960.

He worked in defence research in Britain, Canada and New Zealand before spending 11 years in the United States, first at Cornell University as professor of astronomy and then at the University of California at San Diego where he was professor of physics and applied physics.

In 1974, he worked for eight years for the Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy in Germany, which later became the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

He returned in 1985 as a director overseeing the successful Giotto space mission to Halley's Comet in 1986.

Sir Ian was president of Cospar, the Space Research Committee of the International Council of Scientific Unions, and of the European Geophysical Society, and vice-president of the Asia-Oceania Geophysical Society.

He received numerous honours including the Space Science Award by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (1970), the John Adam Fleming Medal by the American Geophysical Union (1972), when he was just 39, the Tsiolkovsky Medal by the Kosmonautical Federation of the USSR (1987) the Chapman Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society (1994), and the New Zealand Science and Technology Gold Medal (1994).

Sir Ian was a member of the Academies of Sciences of the US and Europe, and of the Royal Societies of London and of New Zealand, and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

For three years from 1982, he was Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University in Wellington, where he led the creation of the research school of earth sciences and encouraged the development of the Institute of Policy Studies and the Stout Research Centre.

Current Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh said today Sir Ian was a strong supporter of the arts, particularly music, and championed improvements to the Kelburn campus, including the creation of the university marae.

In recent years Sir Ian took an interest in global warming, arguing that wider use of nuclear energy would be better for the planet than countries such as China, Australia and the USA burning "all the fossil fuel they can lay their hands on, which would double or triple the amount of anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere".

Convinced that life exists elsewhere in the universe - which he said was the normal view in astrophysics - Sir Ian was also an advocate for New Zealand participation in the world's biggest radio telescope project, the Square Kilometre Array project.