Western Slope Skies 6/7/2013

Jun 7, 2013

Have you ever attended a night sky session and heard people talk about Messier 13 or Messier 6?  Today we discuss the man whose list is a legacy that still excites astronomers over 200 years later. 

Charles Messier was born in France on June 26, 1730.  He became interested in astronomy at a young age.  In 1751, the French Navy hired Messier as an assistant astronomer in Paris. 

18th century astronomers were especially focused on comets.  In 1705, Edmund Halley predicted the return of a comet in 1759.  He was proven correct and that comet is now named after him.  In addition, a bright comet with six tails in 1744 raised global interest in comets.

In their quest for comets, Charles Messier and his colleague, Pierre Mechain, observed many permanent objects in the sky that might be confused with comets.  Messier set out to develop a catalog of these to avoid wasting comet-hunting time. 

He presented the first catalog in 1771 to the French Academy of Sciences.  The list contained 45 objects.  He observed all of these with a small telescope from the center of Paris.  He numbered the objects as he added them to his list.  Messier 1 is the Crab Nebula.

Over subsequent years, Messier and Mechain updated the list.  They published the final version in 1781, containing 103 objects.Between 1781 and 1966, reviews of Messier’s observing notes resulted in the addition of 7 more official Messier objects.

Charles Messier died in 1817. The Messier catalog is significant because it includes many bright deep sky objects that can be easily seen by casual sky-watchers. There are 110 official Messier objects.  These are often abbreviated with the letter M, for example, M32.  It is one of the most significant catalogs of astronomical objects today. 

In case you are curious, Charles Messier discovered 13 comets between 1760 and 1798.