Thursday, February 28, 2013


Charles Messier was a French astronomer with a particular interest in comets. To organize his work and observations, he prepared the Messier Catalog (1784) which became synonymous in astronomy with deep sky objects (DSOs).

Born in Lorraine, France June 26, 1730, he began the study of astronomy early. In 1744, at the age of 14, he saw his first comet and later witnessed the 1748 annular solar eclipse.

He joined the Paris Observatory at 21 years old. As an assistant to Nicholas Delisle he became an accomplished astronomer. Although spotted in 1858 by Johann Georg Palitzsch, Messier was the first person in France to find Halley's Comet.

He became a dedicated comet hunter and was nick-named the “comet ferret” by King Louis XV. Discovered between 1760 and 1784, thirteen comets would bear his name and he would co-discover several more. Along with the comets he sought after, Messier also discovered forty nebulae.

The reason Messier compiled his catalog of DSOs was to save astronomers time while comet hunting. A long time is taken for an astronomer to recognize a potential comet suspect as it requires checking for a sustained change in observed position in the sky over a period of time. His telescope was a small refractor only a couple of inches in diameter, so even star clusters would appear fuzzy like a comet. He recorded the stationary objects - star clusters, nebulae and galaxies - so he could differentiate between previous observations of the object or a possible new comet. He made a careful sketching of each, naming them M-objects (for Messier) followed by a catalog number, beginning with M1 indicating the Crab Nebula. He recorded a total of 103 entries.

In April 1817, Charles Messier passed away at the age of 86, at his home in Paris. Seven objects known to have been recorded by Messier were added to the catalog in the twentieth century, with the final entry, M110, added in 1967. His catalog is still widely used by astronomers for identification of DSOs and contains some of the most beautiful objects in the sky.

Find a complete listing of the Messier Catalog here:

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