Charles Messier and the Nebulae

Charles Messier
(1730 – 1817)

On June 26, 1730, French astronomer Charles Messier was born. He is best known for his publication of an astronomical catalogue consisting of nebulae and star clusters that came to be known as the 110 “Messier objects”. The purpose of the catalogue was to help astronomical observers, in particular comet hunters such as himself, distinguish between permanent and transient visually diffuse objects in the sky.

Charles Messier was born into a prominent family and with 14 years he already showed high interest in astronomy. It is assumed that his first motivations in the field were caused by the observation of the Great Comet of 1744, also known as the Comet Klinkenberg-Chéseaux. It was visible with the naked eye for several months and Messier was immediately fascinated by the object. At the age of 21, he decided to study astronomy in Paris under Nicholas Delisle the main astronomer of the Marines. There he learned to work and observe very precisely while creating celestial charts.

In his mid-30’s, Messier established his main interest to be the observation of and search for comets. During his life time he discovered approximately 20 of them. In 1757 he searched for Halley’s Comet and found it unfortunately too late due to a calculating error by Delisle. In 1761 he observed the famous transit of Planet Venus as well as several galaxies, star cluster, and nebulas. In 1771, he became Delisle’s successor, but lost his position a few years later due to several illnesses.

Messier’s work was highly influenced by the publications of Edmond Halley, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, Jacopo Filippo Maraldi, and Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil. During hiscomet hunt, Messier often tended to mix up real comets with objects outside our solar system. To avoid these in the future, the astronomer established a catalogue with all observed objects. The first one to be recorded was M1 – also known as the Crab Nebula. Even though his catalogue was not the first one in the field, it was the most exact and with 110 entities the most complete to be found. Most objects are still known by the number Messier gave them.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture at Gresham College titled ‘Clusters of Galaxies‘ byCarolin Crawford.

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