Biographies

Messier: catalogs of nebulae and star clusters

Messier: catalogs of nebulae and star clusters

Charles Messier (1730-1817) was a French astronomer known, above all, for having compiled the first catalog of nebulae and star clusters, and for having systematically devoted himself to the search for comets, discovering about 13 throughout his life.

Having entered the Paris observatory with twenty years as a scribe, Messier became passionate about astronomy and studying under the guidance of director Joseph Nicholas de l'lsle (1686-1768), he became his assistant. He devoted himself immediately to the systematic investigation of comets, discovering in 1759 Halley's comet and the following year a new comet, which was given its name.

The compilation of the famous catalog of nebulae and star clusters arose, precisely, from the need to know exactly positions and shapes of these diffuse objects, so as not to confuse them with the comets that I was discovering. The catalog, which contains a hundred objects, is still consulted by astronomers today and is a fundamental reference point for amateurs.

The first object included in the list was the Crab Nebula, listed as Messier 1 (M1). In 1764 he became a foreign member of the Royal Society. In 1765, he found the globular cluster M41. For the year of 1769 he was accepted as a member of the Academy of Berlin by the King of Prussia and on the recommendation of La Harpe, he was appointed to the St. Petersburg Academy in Russia. In 1769 he made the decision to publish his catalog that already counted 45 objects. He joined the Academie Royale des Science in Paris in 1770.

During 1771 he located four nebulous objects M46 to M49. Later that year he discovered M62. In the following years the search for nebulous objects decreased in intensity describing only M50 in 1772, and in 1773 he found a second brilliant companion of Andromeda M110, but, for some undocumented reason, he did not include it in the catalog. Two more objects were described and included as M51 to M52 in 1774.

After three years of low productivity, in 1777 it included M53. In 1778, M54 and M55 were cataloged, which had been previously registered by Lacaille. In 1779, following comet 1779 Bode through the galactic cluster of Virgo, he observed nine objects (M56 to M63) and M64 in 1780. In 1780 he found M65 and M66 and a few months later M67 and M68 with which he completed the second version of the catalog that was published in 1780 in the French almanac Connaissance des Temps.

Messier and Mechain, friends for years, undertook the joint search getting, in 1781, a list of 100 objects. Mechain subsequently added three more objects to the list (Messier M101 to M103) and launched the third publication. Soon after, Charles Messier added M104 and probably also positions for the objects described later as M102 and M103, as well as the nebula mentioned as M97.

In November 1781, his work was interrupted by an accident when he fell into an ice crevice, suffering from a trauma that disabled him for a year. At that time, in April 1782 Mechain discovered another nebula that became the last Messier object found M107.

The Catalog was finally corrected by identifying at least three of the four that had been lost and adding the latest discoveries of Messier and Mechain (M104, M109). A discovery not cataloged was added already in the twentieth century, the M110.

In his last days Napoleon imposed the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1806. In turn, an elderly Messier destroyed much of his scientific reputation by dedicating the great comet of 1769 to Napoleon, who was born that year. In 1815, he suffered a stroke. After a long convalescence, he died on April 12, 1817, in Paris. He has been honored posthumously by the astronomical community by placing his name in a crater of the moon.

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