Royal Astronomical Society

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Royal Astronomical Society
Entrance to the Royal Astronomical Society 3.jpg
Entrance to the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House, London
Abbreviation RAS
Formation 10 March 1820; 198 years ago (1820-03-10)
Type NGO, learned society
Legal status Registered charity
Purpose To promote the sciences of astronomy & geophysics
Professional title
Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (FRAS)
Headquarters Burlington House
Coordinates 51°30′32″N 0°8′22″W / 51.50889°N 0.13944°W / 51.50889; -0.13944
John Zarnecki
Formerly called
Astronomical Society of London

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) is a learned society that began as the Astronomical Society of London in 1820 to support astronomical research (mainly carried on at the time by 'gentleman astronomers' rather than professionals). It became the Royal Astronomical Society in 1831 on receiving its Royal Charter from William IV. A Supplemental Charter in 1915 opened up the fellowship to women. It is the UK adhering organisation to the International Astronomical Union and a member of the Science Council, and encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science.[1] Meetings are held in Burlington House, in Piccadilly, London and across the United Kingdom (UK). They are involved in the production of astronomical journals and periodicals. The society has over 3000 members,[1] around a third of whom live outside the UK. In addition, those members of the public who have an interest in astronomy and geophysics and wish to support the work of the society may become Friends of the RAS.


One of the major activities of the RAS is publishing refereed journals. It publishes two primary research journals, the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in astronomy and (in association with the Deutsche Geophysikalische Gesellschaft) the Geophysical Journal International in geophysics. It also publishes the magazine A&G which includes reviews and other articles of wide scientific interest in a 'glossy' format. The full list of journals published (both currently and historically) by the RAS, with abbreviations as used for the NASA ADS bibliographic codes is:


Members of the RAS are styled fellows, and may use the post-nominal letters FRAS. Fellowship is open to anyone over the age of 18 who is considered acceptable to the society. As a result of the society's foundation in a time before there were many professional astronomers, no formal qualifications are required. However, around three quarters of fellows are professional astronomers or geophysicists. The society acts as the professional body for astronomers and geophysicists in the UK and fellows may apply for the Science Council's Chartered Scientist status through the society. The fellowship passed 3,000 in 2003.

Friends of the Royal Astronomical Society[edit]

In 2009 an initiative was launched for those with an interest in astronomy and geophysics but without professional qualifications or specialist knowledge in the subject. Such people may join the Friends of the RAS, which offers popular talks, visits and social events.


The Society organises an extensive programme of meetings:

The biggest RAS meeting each year is the National Astronomy Meeting, a major conference of professional astronomers. It is held over 4-5 days each spring or early summer, usually at a university campus in the United Kingdom. Hundreds of astronomers attend each year.

More frequent smaller 'ordinary' meetings feature lectures about research topics in astronomy and geophysics, often given by winners of the society's awards. They are normally held in Burlington House in London on the afternoon of the second Friday of each month from October to May. The talks are intended to be accessible to a broad audience of astronomers and geophysicists, and are free for anyone to attend (not just members of the society). Formal reports of the meetings are published in The Observatory magazine.[3]

Specialist discussion meetings are held on the same day as each ordinary meeting. These are aimed at professional scientists in a particular research field, and allow several speakers to present new results or reviews of scientific fields. Usually two discussion meetings on different topics (one in astronomy and one in geophysics) take place simultaneously at different locations within Burlington House, prior to the day's ordinary meeting. They are free for members of the society, but charge a small entry fee for non-members.[3]

The RAS holds a regular programme of public lectures aimed at a general, non-specialist, audience. These are mostly held on Tuesdays once a month, with the same talk given twice: once at lunchtime and once in the early evening. The venues have varied, but are usually in Burlington House or another nearby location in central London. The lectures are free, though some popular sessions require booking in advance.[4]

The society occasionally hosts or sponsors meetings in other parts of the United Kingdom, often in collaboration with other scientific societies and universities.


The Royal Astronomical Society at the University of London History Day, 2016.

The Royal Astronomical Society has a more comprehensive collection of books and journals in astronomy and geophysics than the libraries of most universities and research institutions. The library receives some 300 current periodicals in astronomy and geophysics and contains more than 10,000 books from popular level to conference proceedings. Its collection of astronomical rare books is second only to that of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh in the UK. The RAS library is a major resource not just for the society but also the wider community of astronomers, geophysicists, and historians.[5]


The society promotes astronomy to members of the general public through their outreach pages for students, teachers, the public and media researchers. The RAS has an advisory role in relation to UK public examinations, such as GCSEs and A Levels.

Associated groups[edit]

The RAS sponsors topical groups, many of them in interdisciplinary areas where the group is jointly sponsored by another learned society or professional body:


Prof. John Zarnecki, President of the RAS for the period 2016–18.

The first person to hold the title of President of the Royal Astronomical Society was William Herschel, though he never chaired a meeting, and since then the post has been held by many distinguished astronomers. The post has generally had a term of office of two years, but some holders resigned after one year e.g. due to poor health. Francis Baily and George Airy were elected a record four times each. Baily's eight years in the role are a record (Airy served for seven). Since 1876 no-one has served for more than two years in total.

The current president is John Zarnecki, who was elected for the period 2016–18. He succeeded Martin Barstow in May 2016.[6]

Awards and prizes[edit]

The highest award of the Royal Astronomical Society is its Gold Medal, which can be awarded for any purpose but most frequently recognises extraordinary lifetime achievement.[7] Among the recipients best known to the general public are Albert Einstein in 1926, and Stephen Hawking in 1985.

Other awards are for particular topics in astronomy or geophysics research, which include the Eddington Medal, the Herschel Medal, the Chapman Medal and the Price Medal. Beyond research, there are specific awards for school teaching (Patrick Moore Medal), public outreach (Annie Maunder Medal), instrumentation (Jackson-Gwilt Medal) and history of science (Agnes Mary Clerke Medal). Lectureships include the Harold Jeffreys Lectureship in geophysics, the George Darwin Lectureship in astronomy, and the Gerald Whitrow Lectureship in cosmology.[8]

Other activities[edit]

The council room at the RAS

The society occupies premises at Burlington House, London, where a library and meeting rooms are available to fellows and other interested parties. The society represents the interests of astronomy and geophysics to UK national and regional, and European government and related bodies, and maintains a press office, through which it keeps the media and the public at large informed of developments in these sciences. The society allocates grants to worthy causes in astronomy and geophysics, and assists in the management of the Paneth Trust [9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b RAS Website "About the RAS" page;
  2. ^ Tayler, Roger (October 1977). "Editorial: Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 181 (1): i. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "RAS Meetings". Royal Astronomical Society. Retrieved 14 May 2013. 
  4. ^ "RAS Public Lectures". Royal Astronomical Society. Retrieved 14 May 2013. 
  5. ^ "RAS Library home page". Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  6. ^ "Election results 2015: new President and Council". Royal Astronomical Society. 11 May 2015. Retrieved 16 May 2016. 
  7. ^ "Winners of the 2015 awards, medals and prizes - full details". 9 January 2015. Retrieved 9 January 2015. 
  8. ^ "Awards, Medals and Prizes". Royal Astronomical Society. Retrieved 7 September 2017. 
  9. ^ RAS Website "Grants for Studies in Astronomy and Geophysics"

External links[edit]