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On June 24, 1881, Sir William Huggins made the first photographic spectrum of a comet (1881 III) and discovered the cyanogen (CN) emission at violet wavelengths.  His discovery caused public panic 29 years later when Earth passed through the tail of Halley's Comet.  The first spectroscopic observations of comets were made made by Giovanni Donati (1864) and by Huggins in 1868 when he visually compared the spectrum of comet Winnecke (1868 II) with flame spectra and found that the bands seen in the comet and in the flame, now known as the “carbon” or “Swan Bands” were similar. Spectroscopy soon became the standard technique for studying the light of comets. Huggins was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and later became its president.  He was awarded numerous awards for his work and has a Martian crater, Lunar crater and an asteroid named after him.

Books in our collection


Comet science : the study of remnants from the birth of the solar system by Jacques Crovisier, Therese Encrenaz

Astronomical Spectroscopy by A.D. Thackeray

Optical Astronomical Spectroscopy by C.R. Kitchin