Brian May, winner of AGU’s 2019 Athelstan Spilhaus Award
Brian May

Dr. May’s contributions to public awareness and appreciation of the space sciences are literally unique on the planet. World famous as the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen, he also holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics, which he was awarded in 2007 by Imperial College London for his studies of the zodiacal light. Just by being a rock star who went back to complete his doctoral studies, he conveyed to the public in a way that no one else could that science is cool. Dr. May has used his celebrity as a science collaborator on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet mission, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 asteroid mission.

Dr. May was an avid promoter of New Horizons during and after its 2015 Pluto encounter. He not only participated in numerous interviews and public appearances but harnessed the power of his Twitter account, which has almost 1 million followers. His work generating and publicizing stereo images from all these missions lets the public see the worlds we have explored with new eyes.

For New Horizons’ 2019 encounter with the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, Dr. May raised his impact to a new and extraordinary level: He wrote and recorded a new song, “New Horizons,” to celebrate the mission. Coming as it did just a couple of months after the release of the enormously successful film about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, May’s involvement in the Ultima Thule encounter was an incredible boost to the mission’s visibility. Even readers of Guitar World’s website learned that Ultima Thule was giving us, in Dr. May’s words, “precious clues about how our solar system was born.”

The official video for “New Horizons” has been viewed 1.7 million times on YouTube, and countless more have heard the song on TV and webcasts. All have heard the world’s only astrophysicist/rock star singer.

Limitless wonders in a never-ending sky
We may never, never reach them
That’s why we have to try!

By using his rock star charisma to the show the world not just what we explore, but why, Brian May is truly worthy of the 2019 Athelstan Spilhaus Award.

—Andrew Chaikin, Arlington, Vt.; and John Spencer, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.


My love of astronomy began when, as a boy in the early 1950s, I begged to be allowed to stay up late to watch Sir Patrick Moore present BBC TV’s Sky at Night series. Around 1970, I began my Ph.D. studies at Imperial College London but left without completing my Ph.D., for a break to pursue my hobby of rock music—a break which turned into more than 30 years performing and touring the world with my band, Queen. It was Patrick Moore who encouraged me to resume work on my Ph.D. thesis, “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud,” which I completed in in 2007.

This opened the doors for me to return to the world of astronomy and astrophysics. Soon afterward, I entered into my first collaboration in authorship, along with Sir Patrick and Dr. Chris Lintott: We wrote and published the popular science book Bang! The Complete History of the Universe.

In all my travels around the world, I have never been far away from astronomy, and recently, I have been able to contribute to several space missions through another lifelong passion, stereophotography.

In 2015 I was invited by principal investigator (PI) Alan Stern to join his NASA New Horizons team as a science team collaborator, and I worked on creating the very first stereo images of Pluto. Four years and a billion miles later, Alan invited me back to write a song to accompany New Horizons’ close encounter with the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule. My “New Horizons” single was released on New Year’s Day 2019 and premiered on NASA TV, to coincide with the flyby.

In 2015 I also worked with PI Matt Taylor on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, creating stereo images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This year, in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 team I created stereo images of asteroid Ryugu, the first C-type (carbonaceous) asteroid to be imaged at close quarters. Many of the stereos created from data sent back to Earth by these remote scientific space vehicles have been made with the help of my own collaborator, Claudia Manzoni, and I would like to acknowledge her and thank her for her expert and invaluable work.

I note that this award is for public appreciation and awareness of the space sciences; if, by sharing my experiences in words, 3-D images, and music with those who follow my activities, I have done something to help bring to the public the excitement of space exploration and the associated science, I am content. But receiving this award is a wonderful and unexpected bonus!

My grateful thanks to AGU.

—Brian May, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE)


(2020), Brian May receives 2019 Athelstan Spilhaus Award, Eos, 101, Published on 26 February 2020.

Text © 2020. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

Text © 2020. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.