Charles Messier: The Man Who Searched For Comets

Charles Messier: The Man Who Searched For Comets
Charles Messier, 1730-1817

Charles Messier, 1730-1817

Today, I’d like to honor the man whose catalog of astronomical objects works are an inspiration, and also a resource I use on a daily basis, Charles Messier. Messier was the royal astronomer at the court of King Louis the XVIth. Messier found many of the most famous objects in the sky, including Halley’s Comet, and the Andromeda Galaxy. Though he didn’t discover all of the objects in his catalog, he was the first to take careful measurements of these objects, and write them down in a coherent, well researched document which paved the way for future observations. Astronomers depend on careful measurements and our robotic telescope at Primland needs precise coordinates to find each object for our nightly tours.Without Messier’s careful note taking of where each object appears, our telescope at Primland probably wouldn’t work as well.

Messier’s catalog is broken into four basic classes of objects: Galaxies, Star Clusters, Nebulas, and Supernova remnants.

The Perseid Star Cluster

The Perseid Star Cluster

A Star Cluster is basically what it sounds like- a group of stars that are nearby, either in tightly packed groups (globular clusters), or loose groups. One of the most famous of these clusters is the Pleiades, which I’ve talked about in earlier posts. The Perseid cluster on the left has over 100 stars and is nearly 8,000 light years away.

The Dumbell Nebula (Messier 27)

The Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 27)

A Nebula is a cloud of dust and gasses. There are different classes of Nebula such as this Planetary Nebula, discovered by Messier in 1764. He was the first person to discover this unique object; a star that is emitting hydrogen and helium gas into space as it contracts into a white dwarf.

The Pinwheel Galaxy (M101)

The Pinwheel Galaxy (M33)

Galaxies are huge groups of stars and planets. Messier discovered the Triangulum Galaxy on the left in 1764. Messier observed three types of galaxies in the sky- Spiral galaxies like the Triangulum on the left, eliptical galaxies, and irregular. The Triangulum is about 3 million light years away, and can actually be seen with the naked eye under optimum conditions.

Crab Nebula (Messier Number 1)

Crab Nebula (Messier Number 1)

A Supernova remnant is a cloud of dust and gas left over from a violent stellar explosion. Supernovae have been going on in our universe since time began. One of the first ever observed occurred in China in about 5BC. The supernova that caused this nebula exploded in 1054, and Messier recorded it in his catalog in 1758. At first, he thought it was a comet, but then realized it was stationary. No one fully realized the true nature of the nebula until the 20th century!

The Crab Nebula was what first inspired Messier to look for stellar objects using the telescope. originally his intention was to look for comets. Messier explains this in his own copy of the catalog in 1790:

What caused me to undertake the catalog was the nebula I discovered above the southern horn of Taurus on September 12, 1758, whilst observing the comet of that year. This nebula had such a resemblance to a comet in its form and brightness that I endeavored to find others, so that astronomers would no more confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to appear. I observed further with suitable refractors for the discovery of comets, and this is the purpose I had in mind in compiling the catalog.

In addition to his catalog of 110 astronomical objects, Messier observed 44 comets during his lifetime, 13 of which were new! Ironically, though spotting comets was Messier’s life work, it also became his undoing. Messier ruined his reputation by trying to exploit the fact  that Napoleon’s birth in 1769 was marked with a comet, saying that the comet was an auspicious omen in an attempt to please the new emperor. Messier was called a pseudo-scientist who was still clinging to old superstitions. This did not end his search for comets and he went on to observe his final comet in 1807, 10 years before his death on April 12, 1817.
Near the end of his life, Messier seemed to feel himself a failure as an astronomer. He was buried, as this video shows, in a modest tomb in Paris. However, his legacy lives on in the catalog that we astronomers use every day!

Messier also has a more permanent legacy- the Messier crater on the Moon, which I found a 3D picture for you to peruse, get your glasses out!

The Messier Crater on the Moon (3D photo)

The Messier Crater on the Moon (3D photo)

So here’s to you, Charles Messier! If you’ve enjoyed this post, here’s a link to some great Messier websites:

  1. Biography of Messier- http://messier.seds.org/xtra/history/biograph.html
  2. Messier 45- an excellent database of Messier’s catalog: http://www.messier45.com/index.html#s/NGC%20869

Till next time, Happy Stargazing!

Paul

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