Caroline Herschel – The Comet Sweeper

Caroline Herschel (1750 - 1848)

Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)

On January 9, 1848, Caroline Lucretia Herschel, German-British astronomer and sister of astronomer Sir William Herschel, passed away at age 98. She is best know for the discovery of several comets, in particular the periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, which bears her name.

Caroline Herschel grew up in the German town Hannover where she worked at her parent‘s home as a housekeeper and received a musical education followed by a starting career as a concert singer. At the age of 22, she moved to Bath,England following her older brother William Herschel. Her musical career began to finally pay off and her reputation improved across the country. [1]

Since her brother always depicted a role model to the young and curious woman, he also inspired her to learn more in the field of mathematics and astronomy. As the time passed by, Caroline Herschel spent more and more time reading about scientific events and even began to construct astronomical instruments herself, which she also learned from Wilhelm. A for William as well as Caroline Herschel incisive event depicted William’s accidental discovery of the planet Uranus. As surveying stars he noticed one special ‘star’ orbiting sun, which was later known to be the planet named after the father of Saturn, according to Roman mythology. However, William Herschel took this achievement to the decision to change his hobby to a full time occupation with the support of King George III.

For Caroline, this decision also motivated her to more and more accurate observations. While she assisted her brother on his astronomical projects most of the time, Caroline was able to proceed on her own observation program when he was away. Caroline Herschel’s efforts and hard work resulted in the discovery of her first comet at a magnitude of 7.5 on August 1, 1786. Between the years 1786 and 1797, she discovered eight further comets and her reputation as a scientist and observer grew. Recognizing Caroline’s remarkable achievements, King George III gave Herschel a salary for her position as her brother’s assistant. [2]

Even though, Herschel was always reserved concerning her scientific achievements, her contributions to the field of astronomy are numerous. She added 561 stars to the celestial atlas, created by the first Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed and also observed 13 so called ‘deep-sky-objects’. Caroline Herschel contributed to over 63 scientific publications and was honored by the Royal Astronomical Society for her publication of a catalogue containing over 2500 nebulas. [3]

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture by Robert Nemiroff concerning ‘Comets and Meteors‘.

References and Further Reading:

[1] Caroline Herschel Biography at
[2] Caroline Herschel Biography at MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive
[3] Caroline Herschel at Britannica Online
[4] Caroline Herschel at ESA
[5] Caroline Herschel at Messier Website
[6] Maria Mitchell and the Comets, SciHi Blog, August 1, 2014
[7] Sir William Herschel and the Discovery of Uranus, SciHi Blog, March 13, 2014
[8] Jean Sylvain Bailly and the Orbit of Halley’s Comet, SciHi Blog, September 15, 2017
[9] John Tebbutt and the Great Comet of 1861, SciHi Blog, May 13, 2016
[10] John Flamsteed – Astronomer Royal, SciHi Blog, March 5, 2014
[11] Caroline Herschel at Wikidata


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