Charles Messier

Charles Messier (26th June 1730 – 12th April 1817) was a French Astronomer, born in Lorraine. Sadly when he was only 11 years old his father died, being the tenth of twelve children, consequently he had little opportunity for an education. As a young boy he developed an interest in Astronomy after seeing a six tailed comet in 1744! “it must have been quite something to see” Even with Charles’s limited schooling at 21 years old he was hired to work as a draughtsman by Mr. Joseph-Nicholas de l’Isle, a French naval Astronomer. Shortly after this Charles learned how to use all the instruments and became a very skilled observer. He was promoted to clerk in the Marine Observatory at the Hotel de Cluny in Paris when he was in his mid twenties.

Edmund Halley predicted that after the sighting of “Halley’s comet” in 1682 would be at perihelion (closest to the earth) would again return in late 1758 or early 1759. Charles Messier using somewhat floored charts that de l’Isle had incorrectly prepared, Charles Messier began his search for the comet. Only using a small reflector telescope, compared to the amateur scopes we are used to using today! On 21st January 1759 he located Halley’s comet, but de l’Isle initially refused to let Charles Messier announce his discovery to the public. As fate would have it, an amateur astronomer from Germany, Mr. Johann Georg Palitzch, who was a farmer by trade first sighted it on 25th December 1758. (he had an understanding wife?)

Undaunted by his late announcement Charles Messier from that time onwards dedicated his time into searching for comets, in the next forty years he basically held the monopoly for discovering comets in which he discovered 21 by 1798 using over twelve scopes his preferred choice was a 7 1/2” Gregorian type Reflector, which would give a power rating of around 104x. When the apochromatic refractor scopes became available used a 3 1/2” and gave a power rating of about 120x.

On 28th August 1758 Charles found a small nebulous object (cloudy) in the constellation on Taurus (the Bull) whilst observing a comet he discovered only a few weeks earlier. This object was a Supernova remnant and a Pulsar wind nebula. (first observed by John Bevis in 1731) This object later became M1 the crab Nebula the first in the famous Messier Catalogue consisting of Galaxies, nebulae and star clusters.

He started the list of comet like objects that later made him famous historically for his catalogue of “time wasting, objects to avoid” when comet hunting. Sadly not for the comets he discovered.

Charles Messier became the chief Astronomer in the Marine observatory in 1759 and elected in the Royal Society of London in 1764 and Paris Academy of sciences in 1770.

Searching for seven months in 1764, he added 38 objects to the list including M31 the Andromeda galaxy, (The Andromeda Galaxy can be seen even in relatively bright skies with the naked eye) the Swan nebula M17 and M13. The following year he added M41 south west of Sirius. By 4th March 1769 he added The Orion nebula M42, M43, the beehive cluster M44 and one of my favourite M45 the Pleiades.

Charles had also spent some of his time making reports from other astronomers discoveries. In fact only 17 of the first 45 objects released in his catalogue in 1774 was actually discovered by him. By 1780 he had increased the list to some 80 objects.

The successful comet hunting that Charles messier was nicked named by French king Louis XV “Ferret of Comets” (which we would say, The comet ferret) Charles was no mathematician and replied on his dear friend Bouchart de Saron he was the President of the French Assembly to plot the orbits of his comets. Being an astute observational Astronomer he studied Eclipses, Occultations and Sun spots.

Comet hunting Charles also collaborated with a young Astronomer called Pierre Francois Andre Mechain he was a very successful comet hunter in his own right, discovering 32 new nebulas between 1780 and 178, He found the profusion nebula in Virgo and in Coma Berenices, west of Leo the lion. Charles Messier then dedicated a single night to observe in this area 18th March 1781 finding a staggering 9 new nebulas!

Charles Messier added the one hundredth object in his catalogue on 13th April 1781, Mechain added the last three objects without visual verification M105, 106 and 107 making the list 103 strong.

Charles Messier had discovered 40 in the list, Mechain supplied some 27 objects, other contributors include M1 Bevis, M2 Maraldi, M4, 16, 17, 25, 35, and 71 by de Cheseaus, M5, 11 by Kirch, M6, 36, 37,38,41,47 by Hodierna, M7 Ptolemy, M8 Flamsteed, M13 Halley, M22 Ihle, M31 Al Sufi, M32 Le Gentil, M42 Peiresc, M43 de Mairan, M50 Cassini, M53, 81, 82, 92 by Bode, M55 Lacaille M57 Darquier, M59, 60, 67 Kohler, M69, 83 by Lacaille.

The good work stopped due to Charles suffering a severe fall.

The French Revolution did all the French Astronomers no favours, due to the funding of their work stopped so they could not carry on in the same manner they had become accustomed to. Mechain lost everything.

Napoleon Bonaparte changed the lives of Charles and Mechain for the better. Giving Charles Messier the Legion of Honour and making Mechain the director of of Paris Observatory, and the both of them were admitted in the Academy of Sciences and the Bureau of Longitudes.

His last discovery was made in 1798.

Sadly in 1815 Charles suffered a paralysing stroke ending his career. He died two years later at the ripe old age of 86.

Now you might be thinking but there are 110 Messier objects in his catalogue? The supplementary Messier objects in 1924 Camille Flammarion discovered and brought a hand written letter by Mechain to Bernoulli which contained notes written by Charles Messier.

In 1947 Helen Sawyer Hogg who rediscovered the reprint of Mechain’s letter and suggested adding the objects to the official list. Then Owen Gingerich in 1953 also suggested adding them too. Finally Kenneth Gly Jones added the last M110

The error in the coordinates of M47 and M48 were at one time called the “lost” Messier objects, M40 is a binary star, M73 is an Asterism, M91’s true identity is somewhat questionable. M102 is thought to be duplicated of M101 but it is often accepted to be NGC5866

The Messier Catalogue is one of the most enjoyed deep sky object targets to this day and Charles Messier has a lasting legacy which must be remembered and celebrated!