Charles Messier, the comet chaser

Portrait of Charles Messier. Source: Stoyan R. et al. Atlas of the Messier Objects: Highlights of the Deep Sky. — Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. — P. 15.
Credit: Ansiaume (1729—1786)
Portrait of Charles Messier
  • Portrait of Charles Messier
  • The great comet of 1769 discovered by Messier
  • The Orion Nebula drawn by Messier and designated M42 in his catalogue.
Charles Messier, the comet chaser

Qui est Charles Messier?

Charles Messier is a name well known to amateur astronomers, he being the creator of a catalogue of astronomical objects that are easy to spot with a simple instrument. Let’s look a little more closely at who this astronomer was.

Charles Messier was born on June 26, 1730, in the Lorraine region of France. During his adolescence, he was fascinated by the observation of the Comet de Chéseaux in 1744 and an eclipse of the Sun four years later.

Thanks to his talents in writing and drawing, Messier was hired by the French Navy to work with the astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle in 1751. Later on, Libour, Delisle’s secretary, introduced Messier to the operation of the instruments at the Hôtel de Cluny observatory, located in the heart of Paris. Observing the sky became a passion for Messier.

At that point he undertook a long career as a comet chaser. After observing the return of Halley’s Comet in 1759, he discovered his first comet one year later. In the following 15 years, almost all new comets were discovered by him. In total he discovered 20 comets and studied 44 others, earning him the nickname of “comet ferret” courtesy of King Louis XV.

A useful catalogue

One of the great difficulties in Messier’s time was distinguishing the nebulous objects that looked very much like a comet when observed through the telescopes of the period. Those objects remain fixed in the sky, unlike comets, which move around as nights go by.

To make his research easier, Messier decided to catalogue these nebulous objects so that astronomers wouldn’t confuse them with comets.

A first version of his Catalogue des nébuleuses et des amas d’étoiles, que l’on découvre parmi les étoiles fixes (Catalogue of Nebulae and Star Clusters, Discovered Among Fixed Stars), consisting of 45 objects, was published in 1774. It was followed by a second version in 1780 with 68 objects. The final version of his catalogue was published in 1781 and contained 103 objects.

It was only in the 20th century that the definitive catalogue of 110 objects would be completed.

A fateful fall

In 1781, Messier fell more than seven meters in a cave and was seriously hurt. He underwent a long convalescence, which kept him away from the Cluny observatory for a full year. Despite that incident, he carried on with his observations until the age of 82. His eyesight had by that time grown too weak, and he resigned himself to ending his career as observer. Messier passed away in Paris on April 12, 1817, at the age of 86, paralyzed and almost blind, leaving behind a catalogue still used today.

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