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Heather Couper

Heather Couper British astronomer

British astronomer
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro British astronomer
Was Astronomer Scientist Physicist Journalist Television presenter
From United Kingdom
Type Film, Television, Stage and Radio Journalism Science
Gender female
Birth 2 June 1949
Death 19 February 2019 (aged 69 years)
Star sign GeminiGemini
Residence United Kingdom, United Kingdom
The details

Heather Anita Couper, CBE, FInstP, FRAS (Jun. 2, 1949 - Feb. 19, 2019) was a British astronomer, broadcaster and science populariser. After studying astrophysics at the University of Leicester and researching clusters of galaxies at Oxford University, Couper was appointed Senior Planetarium lecturer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. She subsequently hosted two major series on Channel 4 television – The Planets and The Stars – as well as making many TV guest appearances. On radio, Couper presented the award-winning programme Britain’s Space Race as well as the 30-part series Cosmic Quest for BBC Radio 4. Couper served as President of the British Astronomical Association from 1984 to 1986, and was Astronomy Professor in perpetuity at Gresham College, London. She served on the Millennium Commission, for which she was appointed a CBE in 2007. Asteroid 3922 Heather is named in her honour.

Early life

Born on 2 June 1949, Couper was the only child of George Couper Elder Couper and Anita Couper (née Taylor). At the age of seven or eight, she was watching planes in the night sky because her father was an airline pilot, when she unexpectedly witnessed a bright green meteor. Her parents said there was no such thing; but a newspaper headline the next day referred to a "green shooting star," and Couper then determined to become an astronomer.

She attended St Mary's Grammar School (merged with St. Nicholas Grammar School in 1977 to become Haydon School) on Wiltshire Lane in Northwood Hills, Middlesex. At the age of 16, she wrote to British television astronomer Patrick Moore asking if she would be able to take up a career in astronomy, and received the reply "being a girl is no problem at all"!



After two years as a management trainee, with the Peter Robinson fashion store and its Top Shop division (now Topshop), Couper joined Cambridge Observatory as a research assistant in 1969, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1970.

Couper graduated from the University of Leicester in 1973 with a BSc in Astronomy and Physics. At Leicester, she met fellow astronomy student Nigel Henbest; they formed a working partnership – Hencoup Enterprises – that focuses on astronomy popularisation. She then researched at the Department of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, whilst a postgraduate student at Linacre College, Oxford.

From 1977 to 1983, Couper was Senior Lecturer at the Caird Planetarium of the Old Royal Observatory at Greenwich (superseded in 2007 by the Peter Harrison Planetarium), leaving to become a freelance writer and broadcaster.

In 1984, she was elected President of the British Astronomical Association, the first female and the second youngest person to hold the position. Couper served as President of the Junior Astronomical Society (now the Society for Popular Astronomy) in 1987–9.

The London Planetarium invited Couper to write and present its major new 1988 public show, Starburst!

Couper was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in 1993 – the first female professor in the 400-year history of the college – and held the position until 1996.

Books and other publications

Since 1978, Couper has written over 40 popular-level books on astronomy and space, many in collaboration with Henbest. According to one reviewer, Couper and Henbest are 'great storytellers with an eye for a colourful character'.

Her articles have appeared in leading astronomy and science magazines, including BBC Sky at Night, BBC Focus and New Scientist. She is a columnist for The Independent online newspaper.


In 1999, the Royal Astronomical Society and La Société Guernesiaise invited Couper to deliver keynote lectures on the forthcoming total solar eclipse, the first visible from the British Isles since 1927. Couper has also led expeditions to view total eclipses of the Sun in Sumatra (1988), Hawaii (1991), Aruba (1998), Egypt (2006), China (2009) and Tahiti (2010) .

Public appearances

Couper’s international lecture tours and public speaking engagements have ranged from the United States to China; Colombia to New Zealand. She was chief guest celebrity speaker on the maiden voyage of the P&O cruise ship Arcadia, and she has also given presentations on Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria. In 1986, Couper was aboard the supersonic plane Concorde on its first flight from London to Auckland, New Zealand, as the astronomer responsible for showing the passengers Halley’s Comet while flying at 18,000 metres over the Indian Ocean.

Couper has appeared at many festivals, including the Brighton Festival, the Cheltenham Science Festival and the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. Her corporate work includes keynote presentations to British Gas, AXA SunLife and IBM.


Couper has presented many programmes and series on BBC Radio 4, including the live Starwatch series, Worlds Beyond and The Modern Magi. She won the 2008 Sir Arthur Clarke Award for Britain's Space Race on Radio 4's Archive Hour.

She has also made numerous appearances on BBC Radio 2, Radio 4 and Radio 5Live, as well as regional and local radio stations across the UK. In 2008 Couper presented the 30 x 15-minute Radio 4 series Cosmic Quest, on the history of astronomy.

Her major series for BBC World Service Radio have ranged from A Brief History of Infinity and The Essential Guide to the 21st Century, to the long-running Seeing Stars (presented with Nigel Henbest).

Outside astronomy, Couper has been guest presenter on the Radio 4 flagship programmes Woman’s Hour, the John Dunn Programme and Start the Week. She has showcased her interests in literature and in local history in presenting episodes of Radio 4’s With Great Pleasure and Down Your Way, and in classical music by selecting her "pick of the Proms" for In Tune on BBC Radio 3.

Television appearances

Couper appears regularly as an astronomy expert on news and current affairs programmes, and has presented many series and programmes, mainly on Channel 4.

Her first TV appearances were on The Sky at Night, a long-running series hosted by Patrick Moore. Couper (with Terence Murtagh) presented the 1981 children's series Heavens Above, produced by Yorkshire Television for the ITV network.

In 1985, Couper presented the prime-time seven-part series The Planets for Channel 4, followed in 1988 by the six-part The Stars for the same channel. Her television presentational roles included The Neptune Encounter (ITV), A Close Encounter of the Second Kind (BBC2 Horizon) and Stephen Hawking: a Profile (BBC4).

She has also narrated many factual TV programmes, ranging from Ekranoplan: The Caspian Sea Monster (Channel 4) to Raging Planet (Discovery Channel).

Television production

Couper, along with Henbest and Stuart Carter (director of her series The Stars) founded Pioneer Productions, an independent UK TV production company creating factual programming, in 1988.

Couper presented the company’s first documentary, The Neptune Encounter, in 1989: it was an innovative fast turnaround programme covering Voyager 2's flyby of the eighth planet.

As producer, Couper’s TV credits for Channel 4 include the award-winning Black Holes and Electric Skies, along with the series Universe: Beyond the Millennium.

Couper left Pioneer Productions in 1999 to concentrate on more general radio and TV appearances.

Millennium Commission

In 1993, Couper was invited to join the newly created Millennium Commission, as one of nine commissioners responsible for distributing money from the National Lottery to projects that would celebrate and commemorate the new millennium. She was one of only two commissioners (along with Michael Heseltine) who stayed in post from the commission’s inception until it was wound up in 2009.

For her work on the Millennium Commission, as well as her promotion of science to public, Couper was appointed a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in 2007.


Couper died on February 19, 2019 after a short illness.


  • Times Educational Supplement Senior Information Book Award 1987
  • Honorary Doctor of Letters, Loughborough University 1991
  • Honorary Doctor of Science, University of Hertfordshire 1994
  • Honorary Doctor of Science, Leicester University 1994
  • Gold Medal, New York Festivals 1993, 1995, 1998
  • Banff Rockie Award 1995
  • Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) 2007

Radio presentation

  • With Great Pleasure, 1987, BBC Radio 4
  • Down Your Way, 1989, BBC Radio 4
  • Seeing Stars (monthly series), 1990–2001, BBC World Service
  • The Modern Magi, 1995, BBC Radio 4
  • Starwatch (6-part series), 1996, BBC Radio 4
  • Naming the Universe (5-part series), 1999, BBC Radio 4
  • The Essential Guide to the 21st Century (5-part series), 2000, BBC World Service
  • Red Planet (3-part series), 2003, BBC Radio 4
  • Worlds Beyond (3-part series), 2004/5, BBC Radio 4
  • Arthur C. Clarke: the Science and the Fiction, 2005, BBC Radio 4/BBC World Service
  • A Brief History of Infinity (2-part series), 2006, BBC World Service
  • Britain’s Space Race, 2006, BBC Radio 4, winner of the 2008 Sir Arthur Clarke Award
  • Cosmic Quest (30-part series), 2008, BBC Radio 4
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