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Charles Messier

        Science | Astronomers

Messier, Charles (1730-1817), a French astronomer, discovered or independently codiscovered some 20 comets, earning him the nickname the “ferret of comets” by King Louis XV. He compiled the first catalog of nonstellar objects (nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies) visible from the Northern Hemisphere.

Born in Badonviller in France, Messier's interest in astronomy began in 1744, when he saw a six-tailed comet, and when he witnessed an annular solar eclipse on July 25, 1748. In October 1751, he went to Paris, where he became a clerk and draftsman for Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, astronomer to the French Navy.

Despite his limited formal education, Messier soon learned to use astronomical instruments and became a skilled observer. He was promoted to clerk at the observatory within a few years.

On Aug. 28, 1758, while tracking a comet he had discovered earlier, Messier noticed a cloudy object in the constellation Taurus. It turned out to be a nebula, a cloud of dust and gas, and is known today as the Crab Nebula (M1). Over the next several years he cataloged similar objects “so that astronomers would not confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to shine,” and in 1774, published the Catalogue of Nebulae and of Star Clusters. The catalog at first contained a listing of 45 nonstellar objects. Over the next 10 years, assisted by his protégé Pierre Méchain, he published two supplements to the catalog, bringing the list of nonstellar objects to 103, many of which Messier discovered himself.

In 1759, Messier was appointed chief astronomer of the Marine Observatory in Paris. He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1764 and the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1770. He also took a four-month voyage on the Baltic Sea in 1765 to test and regulate some new marine chronometers. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte awarded him the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

Messier made his last discovery in 1798. A stroke in 1815 partially paralyzed him and ended his career. He died two years later on April 11 or 12, 1817, at the age of 86.