Western Slope Skies 10/11/13

Oct 11, 2013

This is the third in a series on Women in Astronomy.  Today, we meet Caroline Herschel.

Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany in 1750.  Her early life was a conflict between her father, who wanted her to be educated in music and science, and her mother, who thought that household chores were the appropriate life for a woman.

In 1772, Caroline moved to England and joined her brother, William, who was already working in astronomy and music.  Over time, they gradually left music and became full-time astronomers.

Caroline’s assistance to William was critical to the accuracy of his observations, including the discovery of Uranus in 1781.  Caroline was also conducting her own research into comets.

In 1786, Caroline Herschel discovered a comet, the first comet discovered by a woman.  Caroline continued to observe and track this comet until October of 1786.  This was not a periodic comet and has never been observed again.

Caroline Herschel discovered 8 more comets between 1786 and 1797.  In addition, in 1798, she added 560 stars to the leading star catalog of the day, Flamsteed’s Stars.

She did little research on her own for the next 25 years, but was heavily involved in the education of William’s son, John, who became a famous astronomer like his father and aunt. 

Caroline returned to Germany in 1822 after William’s death.  She eventually published a list of 2500 nebulae that she and William had cataloged.  This list was the foundation for what is now known as the New General Catalog, one of the most important catalogs in astronomy.

Caroline Herschel received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and was the first woman given honorary membership in the Royal Society.  She died in 1848, leaving a rich legacy of stars, comets, galaxies, and nebulae for us.