Charles Messier – Comet Ferret
Charles Messier was born into a fairly well-off family in Badonviller, Lorraine, France on June 26, 1730. However when Charles was eleven his father died and his eldest brother Hyacinthe became the head of the household. He even tutored young Charles after the child, playing around, fell out of a window and broke his leg. A fascination with astronomy was born when the teenaged Charles saw the great comet of 1744. It was not only exceptionally bright, but also, famously, developed six tails. Then four years later he witnessed the awesome spectacle of a solar eclipse.
Employment and marriage
In 1751 Charles went to Paris to work for Joseph-Nicholas Delisle, Naval Astronomer. The young man's clear handwriting and drawing ability persuaded Delisle to hire him as a copyist. He also encouraged Messier's interest in astronomy.
A few years later Messier was made a clerk in the Navy's hydrogeological department. Yet until Delisle's retirement in 1765, Messier continued to work with him and to observe from the observatory in the Hôtel de Cluny (now the home of the Musée national du Moyen Âge). In fact, fast forwarding to 1770, Messier was still there, and no one had been appointed to replace Delisle.
Nonetheless in November 1770 Messier married Marie-Françoise de Vermauchampt whom he'd known for many years. Then at last, Messier was appointed Naval Astronomer and given a regular salary. The couple moved into a lodging in the Hôtel de Cluny.
Sadly, the marriage was short-lived. In March 1772 Marie-Françoise gave birth to a son Antoine-Charles. Eight days later she died and their infant son survived her by only a few days.
Comets and non-comets
People were intrigued by comets in the 18th century, and Halley's comet was the big excitement of 1758. Though Edmond Halley had died in 1742 the great English astronomer had determined that a set of comet sightings over two centuries were of the same comet which he predicted would return in 1758.
Messier started looking for the comet in 1757, and throughout 1758 astronomers were avidly sweeping the skies. Comets tend to be fuzzy patches, especially in 18th century telescopes, but they move from night to night. While Messier was sweeping, he was annoyed to find a number of permanent fuzzy patches. He neither knew nor cared what they were except that they were distractions to comet hunters. With the help of his friend Pierre Méchain he began recording them. The first entry in what would be the Messier Catalog was M1, now called the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant.
In 1763, Messier discovered a comet, the first of thirteen. He was also an independent co-discoverer of another seven, and altogether observed 44 comets. His success as a comet hunter led the King Louis XV to nickname him le furet des comètes (the comet ferret).
The deep-sky and the catalog
The nebulous objects in Messier's catalogue are now known as deep-sky objects. Some are genuine nebulae, enormous clouds of gas. Others are galaxies or star clusters. Today it contains 110 objects.
Messier had intended to expand the catalog, but there was astronomy more interesting to him than non-comets. For example, when William Herschel announced the discovery of a comet, Messier was impressed, but not convinced. He passed the data on to his friend Bochart de Saron who was the President of France and an excellent mathematician. De Saron was one of the first to realize that Herschel's discovery was a new planet.
Messier probably also saw that further work on his catalog was made redundant by the nebular survey which Herschel was carrying out with the help of his sister Caroline. They eventually catalogued about 2500 deep-sky objects.
Misfortune and revolution
In 1781 Messier survived a horrific accident in which he fell into a deep ice cellar, leaving him with serious injuries that took over a year for him to recover enough to return to work. His friend de Saron and the Royal Academy helped him out during this time.
Although he went back to work, even astronomers couldn't escape the social turmoil that finally led to the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Then four years into the revolution came the Year of Terror. King Louis XVI, grandson of the king who'd named Messier the “comet ferret”, died under the guillotine's blade in 1794. As did the former president of France, Messier's good friend de Saron.
Messier kept his head, but struggled through the years when his salary and pension had been stopped.
Messier was an excellent observer and it was on the strength of his discoveries that he became a fellow of the Royal Society in Britain and of the academies of a number of other countries. He was also elected to the French Royal Academy of Sciences. That was abolished during the Revolution and replaced by the National Institute of Sciences and Arts to which Messier was elected. In 1806 Napoleon personally presented him with the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
The final years
Messier had survived troubled times, but in his seventies his eyesight was failing, a torment for a keen observer. And in 1815 a stroke partially paralyzed him. He recovered to some extent, but died two years later. The unwilling pioneer of the study of deep sky objects is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetary in Paris.
Biographical information from the research of Jean-Paul Philbert, http://messier.seds.org/xtra/history/biograph.html#philbert2000
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