Charles Messier

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Charles Messier

Charles Messier (26 June 1730 – 12 April 1817) was a French astronomer who is best well known for publishing his astronomical catalog of various deep sky objects that would become known as the Messier objects.



Charles Messier was born in Badonviller, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Lorraine, France, then part of the Principality of Slam (an independent state at the time). He was the tenth of twelve children of Nicolas Messier (1682-1741) and Francoise b. Grandblaise (d. 1765). Most early accounts have Charles living in humble conditions, although newer research show his family was actually well off[1]. His father, Nicolas messier served as part of the government administration for the Princes of Salm, and the family lived in considerable wealth. In 1741, when Charles was 11 years old, his father died and his oldest brother, Hyacinthe, took over the household. It was in these younger years of Charles' life that he grew interested in astronomy, seeing his first comet at the age of 14.

When Charles turned 21, an opportunity was found for him to work with the astronomer of the Navy, Joseph Nicolas Delisle[2]. During this tenure around 1757 he started to look for Halley's Comet, which was hypothesized to return at this time. During this search he observed some of the objects that would later be recorded in his famous catalog such as Andromeda (M31), and the Crab Nebula (M1)[2]. Later Charles did find Halley's Comet (it was rediscovered independently a few weeks before), but because he located it based on the belief his boss Delisle’s predicted was incorrect, his employer, not accepting his predicted path was wrong, refused to allow the announcement of the discovery[3].

In the following years Charles would observe many more of the objects later placed in his catalog. In 1764 he was made a fellow of the Académie Royale des Sciences (French Academy of Sciences)in Paris. It was in 1771 when he presented his first version of his catalog of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, then containing 45 celestial objects[2]. Over the next decade catalog many more celestial objects, being the first to discover several along the way, producing his final catalog of 103 now called Messier Objects in 1781. He also discovered 20 comets, 13 as the original discoverer, and 7 others he discovered independently[4].

His Catalog

The final version of his catalog was printed in Connoissance des Temps in 1784[5], three years after producing it. In the 20th century historians discovered evidence of an additional seven celestial objects observed by Messier, or by his assistant Pierre Mechain after the final catalog was released[3]. Today these seven objects, designated as M104 to M110 as seen as official Messier objects by astronomers.

The catalog itself includes most known deep sky objects including galaxies, nebula, globular, and open clusters. What is interesting though is the catalog is not organized either by object type or by location. All of the celestial objects though are observable through a small 4 inch telescope, comparable to the one Messier used himself, because of this most amateur astronomers capable of viewing the Messier objects with affordable equipment. Both amateurs and professional astronomers though refer the objects using the Messier designation.

The crater Messier on the Moon[6] and the asteroid 7359 Messier[7] were named in his honor.


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