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  • Dr Nick Lomb

Professor Dick Hunstead, a friend of Sydney Observatory

Professor Richard (Dick) Hunstead died on Thursday 30 January 2020 at the age of 76 after a short illness. He was a widely respected astronomer, who will be greatly missed by his friends and colleagues at Sydney University and at other institutions around Australia and internationally. The photograph above is courtesy The University of Sydney.

He was a strong supporter of Sydney Observatory throughout his professional career. Professor Hunstead was also generous in sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for astronomy research with amateur astronomers. In June 2017 he presented his research about galaxy clusters to Sydney City Skywatcher members.

Dick Hunstead was among the first batch of PhD students who worked on Sydney University’s Molonglo Telescope, originally known as the Mills Cross Radio Telescope. A major part of his PhD thesis was in determining accurate positions of radio sources and their optical counterparts. This interest in positional astronomy had been triggered by attending, as an undergraduate, a course in spherical astronomy given by Harley Wood, Director of Sydney Observatory. Dr Wood had a high opinion of Dick Hunstead, writing of him in a letter, dated 10 May 1972, to a leading expert in star catalogues in Germany, as ‘a young astronomer we think of as promising’.

Dick Hunstead

Dick Hunstead went on to fulfill the promise that Harley Wood had seen. He published around 200 refereed papers and made important contributions in a variety of astronomical fields such as the absorption lines of quasars, giant radio galaxies and the study of rapid extragalactic radio signals. He held several important leadership positions such as the Head of the Sydney Institute for Astronomy and the Director of the Molonglo Radio Observatory. He has also been the editor of the Astronomical Society of Australia’s professional journal PASA

When in mid-1982 the New South Wales Government decided to close research at Sydney Observatory and make the Observatory part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Dick Hunstead took a lead role in opposing the move and trying to ensure that the Observatory remained independent. With two colleagues he wrote a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. Together with another letter, it was published under the heading, ‘Keep Stars out of the Museum’. The letter expressed the ‘deep concern’ of astronomers about the decision and extolled the importance of the Observatory’s research work in the cataloguing of star positions in the southern sky, as well as in public outreach by letting visitors view the Moon, planets and the stars through a working telescope.

Despite the stars and the Observatory becoming part of the Museum, Dick Hunstead remained a friend and supporter. He was a popular lecturer, who gave numerous talks to the Sydney City Skywatchers. A recent one was at the June 2017 monthly meeting of the group, with the title, ‘How I search for galaxy clusters!’.

Dick Hunstead will not only be remembered and sadly missed on Earth but in space as the minor planet 171429 Hunstead is named in his honour. This asteroid is a 5.6 km wide piece of rock that was discovered on Siding Spring on 1 September 2007.

Nick Lomb


Obituary, School of Physics, Sydney University

Two People & A Place: The family who lived at Sydney Observatory, by Roslyn Russell

June 2017 Skywatchers Meeting, Observations blog post, by Andrew Jacob

Letter, Harley Wood to W. Fricke, 10 May 1972, NSW State Records

Photo caption: Professor Dick Hunstead (standing second from left) at Dr Nick Lomb’s farewell from Sydney Observatory, 2 December 2009. Next to Dick Hunstead is well-known astronomer Dr Fred Watson and next to him is the then president of Sydney City Skywatchers, Michael Chapman. Sydney Observatory photo

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