Little Bits of History

A Star (Searcher) is Born

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 26, 2015
Charles Messier

Charles Messier

June 26, 1730: Charles Messier is born. The French astronomer was born in Badonviller and is most noted for publishing an astronomical catalogue filled with what is today called the 110 Messier objects. He was a comet hunter and he wished to help others distinguish between permanent and transient objects found in the sky. He began compiling this list in 1771 along with his assistant, Pierre Mechain. The hope was to avoid wasting time on these permanent features in the sky and make comet discovery more efficient. Giovanni Hodierna had published a similar list in 1654 but it had no impact on astronomy and Messier probably did not know about it.

The first edition of the catalog contained 45 objects which Messier numbered M1 to M45. The total list, as published by Messier, contained 103 objects but other astronomers have added some items since Messier’s death in 1817. After finding some notes of Messier’s M104 was added in 1921. Kenneth Glyn Jones added the last item, M110, in 1967. The Frenchman’s final catalog was published in 1781 even though it was called Connaissance des Temps for 1784, and the objects listed are still known by the Messier number.

Messier lived and worked at the Hotel de Cluny (today the Musee national du Moyen Age) in Paris. The objects found in the listing are only found in the night sky which he could observe. These items reside in the band of sky from the north celestial pole to latitudes of about -35.7⁰. Southern hemisphere items are not listed by Messier. What he was finding were nebulae and star clusters. He found something interesting on October 13, 1773 and it was later named the Whirlpool Galaxy. The object is located with the constellation Canes Venatici and has recently been calculated to be 23 ± 4 million light years from the Milky Way. Different methods of measurement give the distance between 15 and 35 million light years.

Close to the Whirlpool Galaxy is NGC 5195, also sometimes called Messier 51b. These two galaxies are one of the most famous pair of interacting galaxies in the sky. Many amateur astronomers can easily find the pair and they can even be seen with a good pair of binoculars. Professional astronomers study the Whirlpool galaxy in order to better understand galaxy structure, especially spiral arm galaxies. The galaxy is thought to be made of 160 billion solar masses with a black hole in the center, surrounded by a ring of dust. The distinctive spiral arm structure is thought to be the result of the interaction with the companion galaxy, NGC 5195.

What caused me to undertake the catalog was the nebula I discovered above the southern horn of Taurus on September 12, 1758, while observing the comet of that year.

This nebula had such a resemblance to a comet in its form and brightness that I endeavored to find others, so that astronomers would not confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to shine.

I observed further with suitable refractors for the discovery of comets, and this is the purpose I had in mind in compiling the catalog.

After me, the celebrated Herschel published a catalog of 2000 which he has observed. This unveiling the sky, made with instruments of great aperture, does not help in the perusal of the sky for faint comets. Thus my object is different from his, and I need only nebulae visible in a telescope of two feet [focal length]. – all from Charles Messier

Also on this day: Helicopters – In 1934, the FW-61 helicopter was flown for the first time.
Cyclone – In 1927, Coney Island opened a new ride.
Pied Piper – In 1284, a piper led 130 children out of Hamelin.
CN Tower – In 1976, the Ontario tower opened to the public.
Fast France – In 1906, the first Grand Prix race was held.

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