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Western Slope Skies: Charles Messier: Comet Hunter

NASA public domain

Imagine being a poor 13-year old boy living in France in 1744 and observing a 6-tailed comet in the daytime. What aspirations might that have generated in a teenager?

This is what led Charles Messier to make a life’s work of astronomy and, particularly, looking for comets. He learned the importance of keeping good records of his observations while employed by the French Navy. This skill would serve him well for the rest of his life.

His first documented observation was the transit of Mercury in 1753. Many of his observational records still exist. He became Astronomer of the French Navy in 1771.

However, his memory of the Great Comet of 1744 continued to drive his passion: comets. He is credited with the discovery of 13 comets between 1760 and 1785.

During one of his observational sessions, he was looking for the predicted return of Halley’s Comet. Due to a miscalculation on his mentor’s part, he was searching in the wrong area of the sky. He noticed a fuzzy object in the constellation Taurus. This was to change his place in astronomical history. He determined that the object was not moving relative to the stars and hence, was not a comet. He later designated it as Messier 1. We also know it as the Crab Nebula.

Over the subsequent years, Messier and his colleague, Pierre Mechain, catalogued numerous ‘non-comets’ in order "that astronomers would no more confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to appear."

The first Messier catalog, published in 1774, contained 45 objects. Other astronomers besides Messier and Mechain contributed to the catalog. Their final list, published in 1781, contained 103 objects. Between 1921 and 1967, modern astronomers have added 7 more objects bringing the total to 110.

During his life, Charles Messier was nominated to three of the most prestigious scientific organizations of the time, the British Royal Society, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the French Academy of Sciences. Messier died in 1817 at the age of 87. He is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

Messier’s catalog is of particular interest at this time of year, because it is possible with clear, dark skies, luck, and coffee to observe visually ALL 110 Messier objects in a single night. This ‘Messier Marathon’ is popular with many amateur astronomers.

You have been listening to “Western Slope Skies”, produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society and KVNF Community radio. I’m Bryan Cashion.


Wikipedia list of Messier objects

History of Charles Messier – Paris Observatory – Note: The actual pages of his journals are only visible in Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome, not FireFox