Charles Messier is regarded as an integral pioneer in the domain of astronomy, having discovered and effectively catalogued various astronomical objects. His “Catalogue des Nébuleuses et des Amas d’Étoiles”, known today as the Messier Catalogue, is recognized as one of the most famous lists of astronomical objects.
Charles Messier was born in France in 1730. At the age of 21, he began an assistantship at a new Naval Observatory where he learned to use the observatory’s various instruments and developed his skills as an observer. Shortly thereafter, he began working for French astronomer Joseph-Nicholas de l’Isle’s Marine Observatory. In 1759, Messier correctly identified Halley’s comet, a comet that returns to Earth’s vicinity approximately every 75 years and thus its return at this time was predicted by Halley himself. This began Messier’s interest in searching for comets.
Throughout his efforts to find comets in the night sky, other astronomical objects were discovered. He then decided to create a separate list of these astronomical objects. The list initially began as a means of tracking the non-comet objects that he observed throughout his efforts to discover new comets. However, in a forging and innovative effort, his catalog evolved to document both transient and permanent diffuse objects in the sky with the intent of supporting the observations of other and future astronomers. Messier lead the effort of growing this catalog by also incorporating the observations of other astronomers in his list, and it continued to develop for several years.
The Last Object Added in 1966
By 1784, the list had amounted to 103 total objects – 40 of which were his own discoveries. Due to the significance and value of the catalog, objects have continued to be included since Messier’s stopped his observation work and following his death in 1817. By following in his footsteps and using his notes and observations, other astronomers contributed the list to make a total of 110 objects, the last of which was added in 1966. Today, the Messier objects are observed by professional and amateur astronomers alike.
The list includes supernova remnants, galaxies, nebulas and star clusters. Some of the most recognized objects Messier recorded include the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the Crab Nebula supernova remnant (M1), the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) and the galactic cluster Pleiades (M45).
Thanks to Messier’s pioneering effort in documenting these diffuse astronomical objects, amateur and professional astronomers still enjoy locating and studying these objects in the night sky. The term “Messier Marathon” is used to describe the effort of finding as many Messier objects as possible in a single night. These marathons are often organized by astronomical societies and astronomy clubs. Under the proper conditions, all 110 objects can be observed in a single night. The latitude of 25° north is considered optimal for observing much of these objects, particularly around the autumnal equinox, as Messier produced his list from the Northern hemisphere. Fortunately, due to the Unistellar eVscope’s quick and autonomous pointing and tracking capabilities, the Messier objects can be identified with ease at any period.
The Lacaille Marathon in the Southern Hemisphere
There is also a Lacaille Marathon of forty-two objects in the southern Hemisphere. This event is named after French astronomer Abbe Nicolas Louis de la Caille who lived near the time of Messier. There is also the Caldwell Catalogue that comprises a list of 109 deep-sky objects that were compiled in 1995 by British astronomer Patrick Moore. This list includes none of the Messier Objects, but they span nearly the whole sky (from 85 degrees north to 80 degrees south). Evidentially, Messier’s initiating efforts to document these objects has held lasting impact not only on other astronomers of his time, but also today’s observers who enjoy searching for these objects as well.
Fortunately, due to the Unistellar eVscope’s quick and autonomous pointing and tracking capabilities, the Messier objects can be identified with ease at any period, further supporting and facilitating the forging efforts of today’s pioneering astronomers that will pave the way for the documentation of new astronomical objects.
Glyn Jones, Kenneth. Messier’s Nebulae and Star Clusters. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Machholz, Don, and ProQuest. The Observing Guide to the Messier Marathon : a Handbook and Atlas. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
“Messier Catalog.” Britannica Online Academic Edition, 2018, pp. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Messier, Charles, and Students for the Exploration Development of Space (SEDS). The Messier Catalog, 1994.
Shapley, Harlow, and Helen Davis. “Messier’s Catalog of Nebulae and Clusters.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, vol. 29, no. 170, 1917, pp. 177–179.
“The Charles Messier Catalog.” The Amateur Astronomer’s Guide to the Deep-Sky Catalogs, Springer New York, New York, NY, 2012, pp. 123–129. Patrick Moore’s Practical Astronomy Series.