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Charles Messier - French astronomer. 1730 - 1817

Born in Badonvillier on 26th June, 1730, Charles had an unfortunate start to life. The tenth of twelve children, he had to finish his education at the age of 11, after his father died. He became fascinated by the night skies at the age of 14, when a large bright comet appeared in the skies, an interest which was further fuelled by a solar eclipse on 25th July 1748.

A thoughtful and well-organised man, he decided to pursue his interest in astronomy by moving to Paris, and in 1751 he obtained work at the Marine Observatory, as a clerk to Joseph Nicolas Delisle, the Naval Astronomer, in part because of his keen interest, but primarily because of his neat handwriting! Although his work did not initially involve celestial observation (working in cartography, his first job was copying a map of China), he did make important contacts among the astronomers of the day. One in particular had a tremndous effect on him, a man named Libour, Delisle's secretary. It was Libour who introduced him into the observatory at the Hotel de Cluny, gave him tution in the science of astronomy and convinced him of the value of keeping careful notes of all aspects of his observations. It was this careful attention to detail which was to prove vital when he later produced his famed catalogue.

By 1754 he was working full-time as a Depot Clerk of the Navy, but always devoted much of his spare time to making observations, on which he kept meticulous notes. As Halley's Comet was expected to return in 1758, Messier began searching for it the previous year, and it was whilst he was mapping a star chart to support this search that he first found the object M32, a satellite galaxy of the M31 elliptical galaxy in Andromeda. Delisle had calculated a theoretical path for the comet, but due to errors in the calculations, Messier was looking in the wrong area of the sky, but he did discover what he initially thought was a comet in the constellation of Taurus. When it was found not to be moving, he realised that it was a nebula, M1, the first entry in his catalogue, its position having been fixed on 12th September 1758. This object is now better known as the Crab Nebula.

Although these finds were exciting, he was disappointed when the Comet Halley was observed by a German amateur astronomer, Johann Georg Palitzch over the Christmas of 1758. Messier himself found it on 21st January 1759, independently of the first discovery, and some way off Delisle's predicted path. Delisle refused to acknowledge his findings, as he still had faith in his own calculations, and when Messier did finally announce it (on 1st April), few believed it. Further frustration was to follow when his employer ignored a further cometary find in 1760.

The search for comets

Delisle retired shortly after this second incident, and Messier continued working from the Hotel Cluny observatory, working predominantly in searching for comets and mapping predicted paths. His work and observations at this time included the transit of Venus (1761), detailed work on Saturn's rings and a number of comets (Comet 1763 Messier and Comet 1764 Messier). He was in for further disappointment, however. He had high expectations of being invited to enter the French Academie Royale des Science, and was not successful, despite his record of achievement.

He continued to search both for comets and nebulae (as these were often mistaken for comets), with great success, and was recognised in 1764 by being appointed as a member of The Royal Society of London, and becoming a member of the Berlin Academy at the invitation of the King of Prussia in 1769, as well as the Academy of St. Petersburg.

More discoveries followed, and he was finally invited to join the Academie Royale des Science in 1770, and married Marie-Francoise de Vermauchampt. The following year, was appointed as the Astronomer of the Navy, and 1771 became an important year for him, as he was named as the co-discoverer of the Great Comet of that year, and shortly after the presentation of the first version of his catalogue, he found four more nebulous objects, M46-M49 (although uncharacteristically, he made mistakes in the data for M47 and M48, and their final identification was delayed considerably).

In 1774, Messier was introduced to Pierre Mechain by Jerome de Lalande, and the two became close friends and colleagues. Their work together resulted in many discoveries (listed in full below), and his publishing of his second catalogue in 1780 was another triumph for him, although the following year he sustained some severe injuries during a fall, and did little work for almost a year.

In 1798, Mme. Messier died, and Charles began to live with relatives rather than on his own (the couple were childless), and in 1806 he received the Order of the Cross from Napoleon. By this time, he was becoming quite fragile, and relied increasingly on others for help. Following a stroke in 1815, he contracted dropsy, and died a few days later, on 12th April 1817.

A timeline of discovery

  • 1757 First observation of M32.
  • 1758 Comet 1758 De La Nux, M1 (Crab Nebula)
  • 1759 Comet Halley
  • 1760 Comet 1759 II Messier, co-discoverer of Comet 1759 III (the Great Comet of 1760), globular star cluster M2
  • 1761 Observation of a Venus transit.
  • 1762 Observations of Comet 1762 Klinkenberg.
  • 1763 Discovery of Comet 1763 Messier
  • 1764 Discovery of Comet 1764 Messier, globular cluster M3, the recording of the objects M3-M40 (several of which came from old star catalogues)
  • 1765 M41 recorded
  • 1766 Discovers 1766 I Messier, co-discovers 1766 II Helfenzrieder
  • 1767 Messier takes part in a 3½ months voyage to test chronometers
  • 1769 M42--M45 added to the catalog, first version of the catalogue is finished, discovers Comet 1769 Messier
  • 1770 Discovers Comet 1770 I Lexell
  • 1771 Co-discovered Comet 1770 II, discovered Comet 1771 Messier, and his first catalogue was published. Shortly afterward, he discovered and recordered M46-49 and M62
  • 1772 Observed Comet 1772 Montaigne, discovered M50
  • 1773 M110 discovered but not cataloged, Comet 1773 Messier
  • 1774 Records M51 and M52, observed Comet 1774 Montaigne
  • 1777 Discovers M53, and reports "specks" crossing the sun
  • 1778 Discovers M54 and M55
  • 1779 Co-discovers Comet 1779 Bode, M56-M63
  • 1780 Discovers M64-M79, publishes second version of the catalog, discovers Comet 1780 I Messier
  • 1781 Cataloged M80-M100, added Pierre Méchain's objects M101-M103 (he added M104 soon afterward), discovered M108 and M109
  • 1782 The last Messier object, M107, was discovered by Pierre Méchain
  • 1783 Observes Comet 1783 Pigott
  • 1785 Discovers Comet 1785 I Messier-Méchain, observes Comet 1785 II Méchain
  • 1788 Discovers Comet 1788 I Messier
  • 1793 Discovers Comet 1793 I Messier
  • 1798 Discovers Comet 1798 I Messier
  • 1801 Co-discovers Comet 1801 Pons

Encyclopædia Britannica

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