11 July 2022

ANU student knits solar system into her jumper ... and the result goes global

| James Coleman
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Rachel Kirby

PhD student Rachel Kirby: the jumper includes the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt but loses a certain ‘planet’. Photo: Tracey Nearmy, ANU.

Rachel Kirby has taken up the knitting needles in her spare moments for about 10 years now, but her latest creation is out of this world.

The PhD student at the Australian National University (ANU) has weaved together two of her passions – knitting and space – to create a solar-system jumper. And now it seems everyone wants one.

“It’s been a fun, unexpected science communication tool,” she says.

“Some of the people who have asked for the pattern have been science teachers, as well as people who love space and I really like that.”

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Rachel has been captivated by space since childhood, so when she finished school she pursued planetary geology and cosmochemistry at the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences.

As part of her PhD studies, Rachel examines iron meteorites that have crashed into Earth in the hope of unravelling the mystery of where they came from and how they were formed.

“Not all of them fit into our current models of how iron meteorites formed, which is in the cores of planets that were then broken up and eventually fell to Earth,” she says.

“I’ve also been looking at the relationships between different asteroids and meteorites, and what happens when they impact each other.”

In her free time, Rachel unwinds with knitting.

“My mum taught me to knit about 10 years ago and my grandma taught my mum, so it’s a family history of knitting,” she says.

“I can knit while catching up on Netflix in the evenings. I also have small children and find it’s an activity I can do while also caring for them. While they’re playing LEGO or something, I can stitch. I find it very relaxing.”

While she has a few jumpers, dresses and pinafores under her belt, this is the first time she’s designed her own. Her focus was on getting the shape of the jumper right, but she also decided to have some fun and add a solar system pattern.

“Designing jumpers is not just about the kind of pictures and the colours, it’s also about the shape,” she says.

“This was actually a practice jumper to see if I could get that right.”

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She had a finished product within a month, just in time for Canberra’s notorious winter. The solar system of eight planets is repeated 16 times around the top of the jumper and keen observers may notice some other astronomical additions.

“I also included the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt,” she says.

“Most of our knowledge comes from meteorites that have come from the asteroid belt, so it was important that I included those.”

The belt between Mars and Jupiter is home to millions of asteroids and the dwarf planet Ceres – the largest object in the main asteroid belt. The Kuiper Belt takes up a massive region in the outer solar system beyond the giant gas planets, larger than the main asteroid belt.

A noticeable absence is the former planet and now dwarf planet Pluto, which attracted no small controversy when she shared the jumper with her Twitter followers.

“But I stand by my decision,” she says.

Rachel was blown away by the reaction – the post generated thousands of reactions from knitters, scientists and space-lovers alike. She has also received many requests for the pattern.

The bad news – for the moment at least – is that the pattern is currently an “illegible scrawl”, but its release is on the cards.

The tweet has accrued nearly 8000 likes, 549 comments and 386 retweets.

As for what’s next, Rachel has just completed a science paper on what happens when asteroids collide.

“I really want to design a jumper based on that. But I wanted to get the shape right with this one so I could incorporate the findings of my research into another jumper.”

To infinity and beyond.

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