Charles Messier: An 18th century astronomer with game

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Meet my buddy, Chuck (Messier)

By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory


People have been looking up at the night sky since people have been people. From cave-dwelling Neanderthals to modern man, we have increased our understanding of the universe through careful observations and collaboration with other observers. From Ptolemy in the 1st century to Stephen Hawking who, sadly, has just pasted away, we have built up our knowledge one grain of sand at a time to the mountain of data we have today. Every once in a while, however, an individual makes an observation (or several) that sticks out and ensures they are remembered forever. Today we are going to have a look at one of those giants and his contribution to our understanding of the universe.

Charles Messier, from Wikipedia

Charles Messier was born in Badonviller, France, on June 26, 1730. Charles’ interest in astronomy was stimulated by the appearance of a spectacular, great six-tailed comet in 1744, when he was still a child. By the tender age of 23 he had made his first documented observation of the transit of Mercury on May 6, 1753.

Charles’ passion was comet hunting: Throughout his career he is credited with the discovery of 13 new comets. Comet hunters scan the night sky, night after night, looking for changes or “new” objects that weren’t there in previous observations. This of course required meticulous note taking and map drawing in the days before photography to make comparisons with previous observations.

While Charles was scanning the skies, he kept coming across faint and fuzzy objects with his telescope that didn’t move. This was very odd to him. Stars don’t move relative to each other but appear as sharp points of light through the telescope. Fuzzy, blurry objects, normally comets, do move from night to night when compared to the background of stars. What were these stationary blobs? Charles Messier never found out but was determined to help fellow astronomers and specifically comet hunters not to confuse these objects with the comets they were hunting for. Over the course of many years he and a few friends compiled a list of 110 “not comets” objects in the night sky.

This list is now a very well known and often used catalog of bright “deep sky” objects that you can see with any decent pair of binoculars mounted on a tripod. The list includes 39 galaxies, 5 planetary nebulae, 7 other types of nebulae, and 55 star clusters. You can get a copy of the list, which includes coordinates, object type, constellation, distance, and even a picture of the object, on Wikipedia at this link. There is also a whole sky star chart on that page and links to the individual objects so you can get more information about the object you are looking at.

Chris Fellows’ shot of M13 the globular cluster in Hercules; click to enlarge

Whenever I have a star party I always start off with any planets or the moon as my primary targets for the night. These bring people in and get them excited about astronomy. After an hour or so, the majority of people will have gotten a look and moved on, but there is always a percentage who are truly fascinated and will hang out for the real show of deep sky, faint fuzzies that make up the Messier list on “not comets.” These folks get a real treat when we slew the telescope over to M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, or M42, the Great Orion Nebula. The gasps of astonishment are worth the wait for true darkness, the battle with the bugs, and the shivering cold of late-night observing.

Get yourself out there with a small telescope or good pair of mounted binoculars and see if you can find some of these objects. Heck, a dude in the 1700s with a poor (by today’s standards), small telescope and no smartphone apps or computerized mounts was able to find more than 100 of them. You should be able to spot a few!

Till next time!

Clear Skies,
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory

Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)

 

 

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Scott Gitlin

Nice article and thanks for sharing your knowledge.