Born: June 2, 1949;

Died: February 19, 2020.

HEATHER Couper, who has died aged 70, was a scientist and broadcaster who played a major role in popularising astronomy on TV programmes such as Blue Peter and The Sky at Night.

She also broke new ground as a female scientist. The presenter of The Sky at Night Sir Patrick Moore once recalled Heather writing to him when she was a little girl and asking if there was a future for her in astronomy. He replied, “of course there is” and Couper proved him right, going on to become the first female president of the British Astronomical Association as well as a popular figure on TV.

Couper had demonstrated her skill at astronomy from an early age. She was born in Wallasey, Cheshire, and brought up in Ruislip; her father was a pilot and she remembered watching the sky for planes when she was seven years old and spotting what she thought was a green shooting star. “I rushed downstairs to tell my parents but they said there was no such thing,” she said. “Next day, there was a small paragraph in the newspaper which said a green shooting star had been seen over London. So I became fascinated with astronomy.” One of her prized possessions was a telescope in her bedroom.

It took Couper a little while to find her route into astronomy as a career, though. Her first choice was management trainee at Top Shop, but she decided she didn’t want to be in retail when she was 30 and joined the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge as a research assistant before studying astronomy and physics at Leicester University.

She then did odd jobs in research and publishing before being appointed as a lecturer at the Greenwich Planetarium, which led to her being asked to appear on The Sky at Night in the late 1970s. By the 1980s, she was an extremely familiar face on television, particularly on children’s shows such as Saturday Superstore and her ITV series Heavens Above. She also hosted two series on Channel 4, The Planets and a later series The Stars.

For Couper, the aim was always to make astronomy interesting and popular. Indeed, long before she became an astronomer, she wrote in her diary that she wanted to “help knowledge … and publicise science”. This she did on television and on radio and in more than 40 popular books, often co-written with fellow astronomer Nigel Henbest. She also wrote for science magazines and for many years wrote about astronomy for The Independent newspaper.

On radio, she hosted BBC World Service’s long-running programme Seeing Stars and on Radio 4 presented Cosmic Quest on the history of astronomy.

In 1984, she became the first female president of the British Astronomical Association and in 1993 the first female professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London. The same year she joined the Millennium Commission, which was responsible for distributing National Lottery money to projects to mark the millennium. For this, and her work in science, she was made a CBE in 2007.

In the 1990s, Couper made an attempt to become the first British astronaut but quickly realised it was not for her. “They wanted someone technologically on the ball,” she said, “someone who would know what buttons to press in an emergency. If something blew up, I would think, ‘Oh Christ! What wire goes where?’” Primarily, she said, she saw herself as a communicator. “Many people think science is evil but I want them to be fascinated by the sheer wonder of how it really is and how it all works.”

In June 1999, asteroid 3922 was named in her honour.