French astronomer who, in collaboration with Charles Wolf
(1827-1918), detected a new class of peculiar white or yellowish stars
whose spectra contain broad hydrogen and helium emission lines. These
stars are now called Wolf-Rayet stars.
Rayet was born near Bordeaux and studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure.
He worked in the new weather forecasting service created by astronomer
Urbain Leverrier at the Paris Observatory until dismissed over a disagreement
about the practical forecasting of storms. From 1876 Rayet was professor
of astronomy at Bordeaux, and from 1879 also director of the new observatory
at nearby Floirac.
At the Paris Observatory, Rayet collaborated with Charles Wolf and in
1865 they photographed the penumbra of the Moon during an eclipse. In
1866 a nova appeared, and after its brilliance had significantly diminished,
Rayet and Wolf discovered bright bands in its spectrum - a phenomenon
that had never been noticed in stellar spectra before. The bands were
the result of a phase that can occur in the later stages of evolution
of a nova. The two astronomers went on to investigate whether permanently
bright stars exhibit this phenomenon and in 1867 they discovered three
such stars in the constellation of Cygnus. Wolf-Rayet stars are now
known to be relatively rare.