Charles Messier: Comet Hunter

Charles Messier (pronounced [me.sje]) was a French astronomer and the first person to compile a systematic catalog of nebulae and star clusters. The Messier catalog includes 110 objects, including star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.

Charles Messier, Comet Hunter
Charles Messier - circa 1770

Messier was a veritable comet lover who rose to fame after he discovered the great comet of 1769. King Louis XV adorned him with what ultimately became his popular nickname, “the comet ferret,” due to his high number of discoveries. Messier discovered 13 comets during his lifetime.

Messier star Chart
Star chart with the observed path of the comet of 1764, according to Messier’s positional measurements - Wikipedia Commons

The catalog’s initial purpose was to make comet-hunting easier. Messier was frustrated when comet-like objects he observed turned out not to be comets. So he kept a log of these objects to help other comet-hunters avoid wasting their time on them.

On August 28, 1758, Messier discovered his first nebula. A faint blur in the sky, which showed promise as a potential comet, was in fact a nebula, previously discovered by John Bevis (English astronomer, doctor, and electrical researcher) in 1731. Now commonly known as the Crab Nebula, or M1, it simply appeared as a non-moving, misty patch in Taurus. If only a catalog existed, to avoid making this pesky mistake again! By 1781, Messier had documented 103 nebulae in his now-famous catalog, including 40 nebulae discovered by Messier himself.

Orion Nebula by Charles Messier
Orion Nebula (M42) - graphic by Charles Messier, 1771

As chance would have it, the nebulae Messier documented have significantly more cosmological significance than the comets he loved and gained fame for.