Distinguished New Zealand space scientist Sir Ian Axford has died at his home in Napier, aged 77.

Sir Ian did ground-breaking research in planetary science, comets and solar systems and made significant contributions to space physics.

He was director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany for 16 years, and was involved with the Halley's Comet space probe in 1986.

The 1995 New Zealander of the Year was the first chairman of the Marsden Fund, New Zealand's only fund for fundamental scientific research.

Dr Garth Carnaby, president of the Royal Society of New Zealand, said Sir Ian was one of this country's most remarkable scientists, with a distinguished international career.

Victoria University vice-chancellor Professor Pat Walsh said Sir Ian would be greatly missed.

Ian Axford was born in Dannevirke and educated at Napier Boys' High School, Canterbury University and Manchester University, where he gained his PhD.

His achievements were recognised by the Royal Astronomical Society, the US National Academy of Sciences and the Kosmonautical Federation of the USSR. He was the first New Zealander since Lord Rutherford to be a Fellow of the Royal Academy in London.

Sir Ian was knighted in 1995. He is survived by his wife, Joy, and four children.