Galileo, Cassini, Hubble, Kepler – four wonderful spacecraft, all of them named after prominent astronomers, all carrying the names of men.  No one doubts the importance of these men in the history of astronomy, but isn’t it interesting that there is not a single spacecraft that comes to mind that is named after any of their female colleagues?

In the 21st century, the number of women astronomers, astrophysicists, astrobiologists, and cosmologists has grown, but fair-minded observers would agree that there remains much progress to be made.  So, in a modest attempt to balance the scale, this week’s SpaceRip post is the first in an occasional series that will focus on exemplary female astronomers whose contributions have been as undeniable as those of their male counterparts.

In Her Brother's Shadow

In 1786, a very small woman peered through a rather large (for the time) telescope and saw a mysterious, long-tailed object moving through the night sky over England – Caroline Lucretia Herschel had discovered her first comet.  To his credit, the better known William Herschel referred to the object as “My sister’s comet” when he recorded it in his notebook.  But when the royal family learned of Caroline’s discovery, it was her brother who was summoned to Windsor Castle to explain and demonstrate it.

Caroline and William Herschel (engraving by: P. Fouché)

Born in Germany, Caroline emigrated to England, in 1772, to join her brothers William and Alexander.  She and her siblings had had little formal education, but William had established himself in Bath, England as a musician and composer.  Caroline learned to play the harpsichord, composed scores, and became a vocalist of sufficient notoriety to receive invitations to sing at major music festivals of the era.

Over time, the Herschels’ interests turned increasingly to astronomy.  William became court astronomer to King George III, and Caroline was generally relegated to assisting him with the fabrication of telescopes and recording his observations.  “I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, I did what he commanded me,” she wrote in her memoir.

Caroline Herschel first identified the Wizard Nebula (NGC 7380) in 1787. (Image credit: Michael Miller)

Eventually, however, Caroline came into her own as an astronomer.  By 1797, she had identified eight comets, discovered an open cluster and 14 new nebulae, independently confirmed the Messier 110 nebula (aka NGC 205), and catalogued 560 more.  In 1787, Caroline became the first woman to earn a salary for her contributions to science when she was granted an annual stipend of £50 by King George III.

Caroline Herschel discovered the Sculptor Galaxy (NGC 253) in 1783.

The more things changed, though, the more they remained the same:  Despite her independent accomplishments and rising prominence, when Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A was published, in 1802, Caroline’s catalogue of more than 500 newly discovered nebulae and clusters was attributed to . . . William Herschel.

However, later in life, Caroline received numerous awards and commendations from all over Europe in recognition of her well-earned contributions to astronomy.  In 1828, she was the first woman to receive the Royal Astronomical Society’s gold medal, and she was made an honorary member of the Society in 1835.  She died in Hannover, Germany, in 1848.