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Caroline Herschel - Astronomer: 1750 – 1848

Caroline Herschel was a German astronomer, the sister of astronomer Sir Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel with whom she worked throughout both of their careers. Her most significant contribution to astronomy was the discovery of several comets and in particular the periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, which bears her name.

In 1782, Wilhelm Herschel accepted the office of King's Astronomer to George III . During this time Wilhelm perfected his telescope making, building a series of ever larger devices that ultimately ended with his famous 40-foot (12 m) focal length instrument. Caroline was his constant assistant in his observations, also performing the laborious calculations with which they were connected.

During her leisure hours she occupied herself with observing the sky with a 27-inch (690 mm) focal length Newtonian telescope and by this means detected a number of astronomical objects during the years 1783 - 87, including most notably an independent discovery of M110 (NGC 205), the second companion of the Andromeda Galaxy. During 1786 - 97 she also discovered eight comets, her first comet being discovered in 1786. She had unquestioned priority on five of the comets and had rediscovered Comet Encke in 1795. In 1787, she was granted an annual salary of £50 by George III for her work as Wilhelm's assistant.

1797 Wilhelm's observations had shown that there were a great many discrepancies in the star catalogue published by John Flamsteed, which was difficult to use due to its having been published as two volumes, the catalogue proper and a volume of original observations. Wilhelm realised that he needed a proper cross-index in order to properly explore these differences but was reluctant to devote time to it at the expense of his more interesting astronomical activities. He therefore recommended to Caroline that she undertake the task. The resulting Catalogue of Stars was published by the Royal Society in 1798 and contained an index of every observation of every star made by Flamsteed, a list of errata, and a list of more than 560 stars that had not been included.

Caroline returned to Hanover in 1822 following her brother's death, but did not abandon her astronomical studies. She produced a catalogue of nebulae to assist her nephew John in his work. In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal for this work - no woman would be awarded it again until Vera Rubin in 1996. In 1835, along with Mary Somerville, she was elected to honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society; they were the first honorary women members. In 1838 she was also elected as a member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1846 at the age of 96, she was awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia.

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