The life of Charles Messier and 6 amazing Messier objects

Charles Messier
Charles Messier

  Charles Messier, a French astronomer famous for compiling the Messier Catalogue, was born in the year 1730, on the 26th of June in a wealthy French family along with 11 siblings. The Great Comet of 1744, which is catalogued as C/1743 X1, was the impetus for Messier to pursue a career in astronomy. Aged 21, Messier acquired a position as an assistant to the Astronomer of the French Navy, where he acquired the skills for observing and cataloguing the heavens. The 1750s onwards, he began using the Marine Observatory at Hôtel de Cluny, shortly in 1759 he served as the chief astronomer of the Observatory and later the Astronomer of the Navy itself in 1771. 

Hôtel de Cluny
Hôtel de Cluny, location of the Marine Observatory

The year 1758-59 was a much-anticipated one by astronomers around the world, as it was the year that Halley’s Comet, a comet that was visible from the earth once every 76 years, would be visible in the sky. One such enthusiast was Charles Messier, who was on the hunt for the comet, however, in his search he would come across many non-comet objects that would frustrate him. This led to the compilation of the first official list of astronomical objects i.e., the Messier Catalogue. 

Messier worked for the famous French astronomer, Joseph-Nicolas Delisle as a recorder of astronomical data. Using the opportunity, he noted a number of deep-sky objects including Open Star Clusters, Globular Star Clusters, Planetary Nebulae, Galaxies and Diffused Nebulae. At that time there weren’t any official catalogues of astronomical objects to aid observers, this led Messier to publish his own list of 45 objects in the Memoirs of the French Academy while the rest were by other astronomers. A number of entries were made to this list which was then published in 1781, this list included a total of 103 objects termed M1 to M103 (‘M’ standing for Messier) published in the Connaissance des Temps

First Page of the original Messier Catalogue
First Page of the original Messier Catalogue published in the Connaissance des Temps for 1784.

Today, The Catalogue has a total of 110 astronomical objects listed referred to as Messier Objects, the later additions to it were then done by other astronomers based on the notes left by Charles Messier and his assistant, Pierre Mechain. Due to close proximity of the objects in their respective categories, striking features, the visibility they have not only been the target of professional and amateur astronomers but also of scientific research and exploration. Some of the most famous and sought-after deep-sky objects are included in this Catalogue. 

For his contributions to the field of astronomy, Messier became a member of the Royal Society of London. He also received the nickname, “Comet Ferret” by King Louis XV for his persistent pursuit in comet hunting. Francois de Vermanchampt married Messier in the year 1770, around the age of 40. Unfortunately, she passed away two years later, during labour along with his newborn son. 

Over the course of his career, Messier discovered around 13 comets and about 40 nebulae in the skies of the Northern Hemisphere. He died on April 12, 1817, aged 86 and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France beside Frédéric Chopin.

Tomb of Messier at Pierre Lachaise
Tomb of Messier at Pierre Lachaise

Listed below are some famous Messier Objects: 

Charles Messier’s findings:

  • Andromeda Galaxy, M31

Andromeda is the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy, which is a spiral galaxy. On a collision course with each other, the two are estimated to collide in about 4.3 billion years from now.

Location: The Andromeda Constellation

Age: about 10.1 billion years

Best time of the year to view: The constellation is visible throughout the year, however, autumns are considered the best time to view the galaxy.

Andromeda Galaxy
Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way,  captured using an H-alpha filter
  • Dumbbell Nebula, M27

The Dumbbell nebula is something known as a ‘planetary nebula’, although they are formed from stars, the word planetary here refers to their circular shape when viewed through a telescope. These nebulae are formed when a star equivalent to the mass of the Sun runs out of fuel and begins shedding its outer layers, leaving behind a white dwarf.

Location: Constellation of Vulpecula

Age: 9,807 years

Best time of the year to view: Around the month of September.

Dumbbell Nebula
Dumbbell Nebula, gas being ejected from a central star in the final phases of its life, Credits: European Southern Observatory
  • Beehive Open Cluster, M44

Like most of the entries in the Messier Catalogue, the Beehive open cluster was widely recorded across various civilizations and gained specific meaning. The Greeks believed the absence of Praesepe (Beehive cluster) indicated ‘the coming of a storm’. Located in the heart of Cancer, it is observable by low powered binoculars. However, to resolve the stars in it, higher magnification is needed.

Location:  Around the centre of Cancer

Age: 625.4 million years 

Best time of the year to view: Around the month of March.

A comet passing by the Beehive Open Cluster
A comet passing by the Beehive Open Cluster
  • Crab Nebula, M1

The first entry is also the only supernova remnant found in the catalogue, the Crab Nebula. In 1054 CE, a massive stellar explosion lit across the skies of the northern hemisphere and was visible for 8 months straight. The explosion was recorded by various civilizations like the Native Americans, Indians and Chinese.

Location: Constellation of Taurus

Age: 1, 001 years

Best time of the year to view: Winter to Early Spring

Crab Nebula
The crab Nebula, Credits: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
  • Orion Nebula, M42 

The Orion Nebula or NGC 1976, is considered the ‘go-to’ by many amateur astronomers for visual and photographic astronomy. Due to its relatively close proximity, it can be observed using a pair of binoculars too. This stellar object is located below Orion’s belt and is pictured as the dagger of Orion, the Hunter in Greek mythology. The nebula is widely studied by scientists since it functions as a stellar nursery, providing a glimpse into the process of star formation.

Location: Orion Constellation

Age: 3.002 million years

Best time of the year to view: Winter months are considered the best to view Orion.

Orion Nebula
Orion Nebula, Credits: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team
  • Pleiades, M45 

During the winter months when Taurus, the bull shines in the night sky, the Pleiades or “The Seven Sisters” (Krittika nakshatra in Indian astronomy), one can spot this hazy star cluster. To a well-adapted eye, the stars will begin to appear distinctly embedded with the nebulous clouds. When viewed through a binocular or low-powered telescope one can easily see the seven stars, however, modern high-powered telescopes have revealed even more. 

Location: Constellation of Taurus, the bull

Age:  ~100 million years

Best time of the year to view: During winters and early spring.

Pleiades, an open star cluster in the constellation of Taurus, Credits: NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory

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