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Charles Messier (the Comet Ferret)

In a rather ironic turn of events, an astronomer who was interested solely in finding comets compiled a list of objects in space that hindered his search for them. "Catalogue des Nébuleuses et des Amas d'Étoiles" ("Catalogue of Nebulae and Star Clusters"), also known as the Messier Catalog, would become one of the most well-known and widely-used references for future astronomers.

Charles Messier painting by Ansiaume, Circa 1770
Born in Badonviller, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Lorraine, France on June 26, 1730, Charles Messier (sharl meh-SYAY) was the tenth of twelve children of Françoise B. Grandblaise and Nicolas Messier. By the time Charles was eleven, his father and half his siblings had died. Charles' 24-year old brother, Hyacinthe, a curator with the Navy, took over the care of his younger brother.

When Hyacinthe was away, Charles was playing in the house and fell through a window, breaking his femur, the long bone of the thigh. Charles found himself under the care of a neighboring farmer until his brother returned. Seeing how this injury had impaired Charles for physical work, Hyacinthe took the boy out of school and took over his education, focusing on administrative and methodical work.

The appearance of the Great Comet of 1744, a spectacular six-tailed comet, sparked young Charles' interest in astronomy. A solar eclipse seen from his hometown four years later further fueled Charles' desire to explore the "great beyond".

In 1751, Charles traveled to Paris and took employment with Joseph Nicolas Delisle, French Naval astronomer. Delisle had returned to Paris after spending a little over 20 years in Saint Petersburg, where he created and ran the school of astronomy. By 1753, Charles had become a highly competent observer; his first documented observation was that of the Mercury transit in May of 1753.

Although Comet Halley was not expected to return until 1758, Charles began searching for the comet sometime in 1757. Delisle had erroneously calculated the expected path of the comet and Charles tried in vain to find the comet until August 14, 1758. At that time, he located and telescopically followed a comet until November of the same year. Comet De la Nux had been previously discovered on May 26, 1758.

While conducting his search for Comet Halley, Charles came across a comet-like configuration in the constellation Taurus. Although not a comet, this object became the first entry in the Messier Catalog - the Crab Nebula (M1). As an avid comet hunter, Charles began listing deep-sky objects that might be mistaken for comets. That list grew in time to total 110 objects, including 13 comets Charles is credited as having discovered.

Notice de mes comètes (Notes on my comets) is a manuscript written by Charles, describing in detail 44 comets that he observed between the years of 1758 and 1805.

Nicknamed Comet Ferret by King Louis XV, Charles added 38 objects to his catalogue during an extremely productive seven-month search for comets in 1764. Among the objects included were the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the Swan Nebula (M17). Comet Ferret outdid himself five years later when, on March 4, he determined the positions of four new entries:
  • the Orion Nebula (M42 and M43)
  • the Beehive Cluster (M44)
  • the Pleiades (M45)

Messier's original catalogue, published in 1774, contained only 45 objects. By the time of the last publication in 1781, the list had grown to 103 objects. From 1921 to 1966, evidence was discovered by astronomers and historians of an additional seven deep-sky objects, M104 through M110, that are now accepted as "official" Messier objects by astronomers.

Great Comet of 1744

Charles Messier received a great deal of recognition for his unparalleled work in the field of astronomy. He received a fellowship to the Royal Society, a foreign member election to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, an election to the French Academy of Sciences and, in addition, was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

Messier died April 12, 1817 at the age of 86, two years after suffering a debilitating stroke.

Author Resource: Written by Starr Hendon


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