Messier - The Man, The List, The Marathon
by Duane Dunkerson
About the Man
Harlow Shapley's 1930 book was the first substantive one about
star clusters. Long before him, some of the most beautiful star
clusters of the sky were being made known and added to a list.
Charles Messier started this list. He lived from 1730 to 1817.
His list was more than star clusters. He also listed galaxies
and nebula. He didn't know any of them as galaxies. All of them
he termed nebulae or star clusters. To him they could lead one
astray if a hunt for comets was ongoing. He was the original comet
hunter, engaging in sweeps of the sky with different telescopes,
twelve he would use in all over the years, to ferret out the comets.
Indeed Louis XV of France called him the Comet Ferret. Messier
came upon these celestial objects that looked comet-like in the
telescopes he used. His effective aperture was about 3 to 3.5
He started work as a clerk in Paris at the French Navy's map
depot. He was first assigned to draw a map of China. But there
in the tower of Hotel de Cluny, he began to learn astronomy and
stroll through the sky with small refractors. Halley's Comet was
due for a return, if any, and Messier's boss had calculated where
and when it should show itself in the sky. Much to Messier's disgust,
a German farmer, Palitzsch, first saw Halley's return from Aprohlis,
Other comets came and went. The one of 1769 had a tail spanning
60 degrees, an enormous distance in the sky. Another comet came
round in 1788. This one was difficult to observe since he was
without fire during the greatest (coldest) winter yet known by
him and many others. He had been fortunate to see a six-tailed
comet that had sparked his interest in comets.
Then, in 1757, at the Navy's Observatory, he did find a comet
other than Halley's and he also found a comet-like patch of light,
not to be reported as a comet. This patch was what we now call
the Crab Nebula. It became the first one on his list. It is Messier
1 or known as M1. The list and the comet hunting were conjoined
at the outset.
Yet he did more than hunt comets. He observed an eclipse of the
Sun, August 16, 1766, at the observatory of the Marquis of Courtenvaux.
Messier also observed the remarkable Aurora Borealis, Jupiter's
satellites, lunar eclipses, Saturn, transits of Mercury and Venus,
and lunar occultations. He contributed a memoir on the cold wave
"which was experienced at Paris, in the provinces of the
Kingdom and in a part of Europe". Also meteorological, was
an account of "the great heats, the drought, and the diminution
of water of the Seine, at Paris".
He finally became Astronomer of the Navy in 1771. In 1775 de
Lalande proposed that this famous comet hunter should have a constellation
named after him. It was to be called Custos Messium. Ironically,
it did not contain any of the celestial objects of Messier.
The list of Messier objects was not to get much longer when in
1781 he fell into an ice cellar. Severe injuries led to a recovery
of more than a year. Also he had to contend with failing eyesight,
the Herschels instrumentation that put him out of the lead as
a nebula finder, and a scientific reputation damaged by claiming
that a comet, of 1769, had heralded the birth of Napoleon.
In the century of Napoleon, discovering comets was a way to make
a name for oneself. Messier certainly was famous. He discovered
20 comets. Of these, 6 were comets that had been seen before and
were back again in their orbits about the Sun. Though he had these
20 comets to his credit, it could not be converted into funds
for repair of his observatory. In addition to the physical ailments
already mentioned, he suffered a stroke in 1815. Daily life was
difficult. He died at age 87 in 1817.
About the List
In a publication dated 1771 but published in 1774 is a "Catalogue
of Nebulae and Star Clusters, which have been discovered between
the fixed stars over the horizon of Paris; observed at the Observatory
of the Navy, with different instruments". This publication
covered M1-M45. In 1780 he added through M70. By 1781 it was up
Messier's list is notable for its historical interest, even distribution
throughout the sky, and the variety of objects noted. The Messier
objects are galaxies, globular star clusters, open star clusters,
and true nebula. They differ among themselves in color, brilliance,
and complexity of detail. Some versions of the list differ in
the total number of objects. Older versions are usually at 104.
More recently the list has 110 objects. Whatever version is used,
Messier found not all of them. Others, such as Halley, Maraldi,
Huygens, Kirch, and Hevelius, had recorded some of them.
He did find M1, which he described as being like a flame of a
candle. M3 he regarded as always beautiful. M7 - a star cluster
more considerable than M6, appearing to the naked eye like a nebulosity.
M9 - nebula, without stars, in the belt of Ophiuchus, near the
30th star of that constellation. M17 - a train of light without
stars. M31 - shaped like a spindle. No stars, resembles two cones
or pyramids that are opposed at their bases.
M53 - round and conspicuous. M57 - it seems that this patch of
light, which is round, must be composed of very small stars :
with the best telescopes it is impossible to distinguish them;
there stays only a suspicion that they are there. M71 - its light
is very faint, any additional (spurious) light makes it disappear.
M74 - fairly large, very obscure, and extremely difficult to observe;
one can recognize it with more certainty in fine, frosty conditions.
Some of his objects were described by him as to be seen with
difficulty in an ordinary telescope. Modern day amateur telescopes
of modest size can see what he saw and, usually, somewhat better
than he saw. Also contributing to popularity of the list for Northern
Hemisphere observers is that he made his observations from Paris.
In celestial coordinates of declination they can be found between
35 degrees south and 70 degrees north. In addition they are evenly
distributed in the celestial coordinates of right ascension except
at 4 hours and 22 hours. This means some of them are visible every
night of the year. 73 objects of the Messier list appear in spring
and summer and so further enhance one's enjoyment of them.
About the Marathon
The lore of amateur astronomers contains a chapter on the Messier
Marathon. The chapter's preface states that the Messier Marathon
was invented independently by several amateurs and amateur astronomy
clubs in the 1970s. Usually a name pops up somewhere along the
line, at the head of the line, to be first. One name known is
Gerry Rattley of Dugas, Arizona.
Rattley and others have sought and are seeking to find all 110
of the Messier objects in a single night. Viewing all 100 Messiers
has become a rite of passage for amateur astronomers. The Astronomical
League issues certificates to you if you complete the list, that
is, observe all the Messier objects. You can be as leisurely as
you like to "bag" all 110. Messier Marathoners do it
all in one night. That night, due to celestial constraints, must
be around the Vernal Equinox - usually around March 21. You start
at sunset, and finish at dawn. There are respites of varying lengths
- one is of about an hour. So for most Northern Hemisphere observers
you will be doing it all in the cold while mostly on the go across
the sky. To get the last one, M30, you need to be south of latitude
35 degrees North.
As for any marathon, there is training and equipment to be considered.
It is thought to be less skillful, not as accomplished, to use
GOTO's or setting circles. So one needs knowledge of the sky,
a good finderscope, and prior recognition of the visual aspect
of all on the Messier list. Add in a good site, a good telescope,
wide field eyepieces, and a star atlas. Have a table for the atlas
and other needed equipment like binoculars. Dress warm, have some
grub and/or grog on hand.
Plan a sequence of the Messiers to accomplish. Begin in the twilight.
Some recommend M74, M77, among others, as a start. These two can
be difficult to locate. Another 4 objects and one can relax a
short time. Do the easy Pleiades and others. Don't stop to admire
the beauty of these M's, there is a long night to come. At some
point have a break of about an hour penciled-in. Find-the-Galaxy
is in Virgo. Some recommend a direct attack of the galaxies on
two flanks in turn. There are 17 galaxies as Messier objects in
Virgo and part of the problem is finding Messier's and not others
in this region of the sky which contains a great cluster of galaxies.
These 17 can make or break you. By 2AM the summer time objects
are coming up. Then later come the Last Leg of Six, you're racing
across the sky now. Birds announce the dawn. Then M30, if your
latitude permits. Done? Done!