Charles Messier : biography
Charles Messier (26 June 1730 – 12 April 1817) was a French astronomer most notable for publishing 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.
The crater Messier on the Moon and the asteroid 7359 Messier were named in his honor.
Messier was born in Badonviller in the Lorraine region of France, being the tenth of twelve children of Françoise B. Grandblaise and Nicolas Messier, a Court usher. Six of his brothers and sisters died while young and in 1741, his father died. Charles’ interest in astronomy was stimulated by the appearance of the spectacular, great six-tailed comet in 1744 and by an annular solar eclipse visible from his hometown on 25 July 1748.
In 1751 he entered the employ of Joseph Nicolas Delisle, the astronomer of the French Navy, who instructed him to keep careful records of his observations. Messier’s first documented observation was that of the Mercury transit of 6 May 1753.
In 1764, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society, in 1769, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and on 30 June 1770, he was elected to the French Academy of Sciences.
Messier discovered 13 comets :
- C/1760 B1 (Messier)
- C/1763 S1 (Messier)
- C/1764 A1 (Messier)
- C/1766 E1 (Messier)
- C/1769 P1 (Messier)
- D/1770 L1 (Lexell)
- C/1771 G1 (Messier)
- C/1773 T1 (Messier)
- C/1780 U2 (Messier)
- C/1788 W1 (Messier)
- C/1793 S2 (Messier)
- C/1798 G1 (Messier)
- C/1785 A1 (Messier-Mechain)
Messier is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, in Section 11. The grave is fairly plain and faintly inscribed, and while it is not on most maps of the cemetery, it can be found near the grave of Frédéric Chopin, slightly to the west and directly north, and behind the small mausoleum of the jeweller Abraham-Louis Breguet.
The Messier catalogue
Messier’s occupation as a comet hunter led him to continually come across fixed diffuse objects in the night sky which could be mistaken for comets (they are known today to be galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters). He compiled a list of them,
in collaboration with his friend and assistant Pierre Méchain (who may have found at least 20 of the objects), to avoid wasting time sorting them out from the comets they were looking for. Messier did his observing with 100 mm (four inch) refracting telescope from Hôtel de Cluny (now the Musée national du Moyen Âge), in Paris, France. The list he compiled contains only objects found in the sky area he could observe: from the north celestial pole to a celestial latitude of about −35.7° and are not organized scientifically by object type, or even by location.
The first version of Messier’s catalogue contained 45 objects and was published in 1774 in the journal of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. The final version of the catalogue was published in 1781, in Connoissance des Temps for 1784.Charles Messier, 1781. Catalogue des Nébuleuses & des amas d’Étoiles. Connoissance des Temps for 1784 (published 1781), pp. 227–267 [Bibcode: 1781CdT..1784..227M]. The final list of Messier objects had grown to 103.
On several occasions between 1921 and 1966, astronomers and historians discovered evidence of another seven objects that were observed either by Messier or by Méchain, shortly after the final version was published. These seven objects, M104 through M110, are accepted by astronomers as "official" Messier objects.
The objects’ Messier designations, from M1 to M110, still are in use by professional and amateur astronomers today and their relative brightness makes them popular objects in the amateur astronomical community.