Charles Messier was an astronomer fascinated with viewing and recording celestial objects. He entered the field at a time when the telescope was still relatively new, and space suddenly seemed to be filled with objects just waiting to be discovered. Messier is famous for his catalogue of over one hundred non-star objects, such as nebulae and star clusters, which he published in the French journal Connaissance des Temps (Knowledge of the Times).
Messier was born in Badouvillier, in the French state of Lorraine. He became an orphan at an early age. In 1751, when Messier was twenty-one years old, he came to Paris to seek his fortune. His first job was as a draftsman for astronomer Joseph Nicolas Delisle, who assigned him to the task of copying a map of the Great Wall of China. Messier's work space was a long, chilly hallway in the College of France. This environment turned out to be a proper initiation into a future of long, cold nights studying the skies.
Delisle also taught Messier how to operate astronomical instruments. Within three years, Messier had become a competent astronomical observer and was hired to work as a clerk at the Marine Observatory in Paris. There Messier carefully watched the sky for the predicted return of Halley's comet, which he finally spotted in January 1759. Messier soon found out, however, that it had been discovered by a farmer in the French countryside a month earlier. News traveled slowly in those days and word of the comet's sighting had not yet reached Paris.
Shortly after that, Messier began working in the tower observatory at the Hotel de Cluny in Paris. From that post he discovered at least fifteen comets and recorded numerous eclipses, transits, and sunspots.
Messier Receives International Recognition
By 1762, Messier was considered the leading French astronomer by those outside of France, but his fellow countrymen looked down upon his work as being merely observational. For instance, he was criticized for not plotting the orbits of the comets he had discovered. It was not until 1770, that the French Academie Royale admitted him. By that time, he had already been made a member of elite science associations in three other countries
Around that time, Messier produced the first section of his famous catalogue. The first object listed is the Crab nebula in the constellation Taurus. Messier described the nebula as "a whitish light, extended in the form of the light of a candle, and which contained no stars."
"This light was a little like that of a comet I had observed before," he continued. "However, it was a little too bright, too white, and too elongated to be a comet, which had always appeared to me before almost round, without the appearance either of a tail or a barb."
Messier labeled his objects according to the order in which they were discovered. Each number was preceded by the letter "M," for Messier. Thus, the Crab nebula is called M1, and the Andromeda galaxy, which was the thirty-first object discovered, is called M31. Many celestial objects are still referred to today by their Messier designations.
Messier originally included in the catalogue only those objects he had personally discovered. He eventually widened the catalogue to include objects discovered by other astronomers of the day and that he was able to confirm independently. His initial list of forty-five objects was ultimately expanded to over twice that number. For each entry, he included a description of the object, the date on which it was discovered, and the position at which it was observed.
Throughout his career, Messier used over a dozen telescopes. The largest one was a reflector which relied on a primary mirror only 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) in diameter to bring light rays into focus. This is very small compared to today's telescopes, such as the Keck Telescope at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. It has a primary mirror 394 inches (1,000 centimeters) in diameter. Considering the limitations of his instruments, Messier's discoveries are even more impressive.
Messier's final addition to his catalogue was made in 1781. Following that he had a serious accident, falling 25 feet (7.5 meters) and breaking several bones. A year later, Messier returned to the observation tower and resumed his earlier study of comets and solar eclipses. Within a few years, the French Revolution was underway. The observatory was closed down, and Messier stopped receiving a salary.
After the war's end Messier spent a few years at the Paris Observatory. He then suffered a stroke, after which he was cared for at home by his niece. Messier died in 1817 at the age of eighty-six.