Messier Objects

Observing all of the objects in the catalog compiled by Charles Messier in the late 18th century has been almost a right of passage for many (most?) amateur astronomers. Charles Messier was a comet hunter but, at that time, comet hunting was pretty much the only route to fame as an astronomer, and fame was the only way to find a patron who might pay you enough to pursue astronomy as a regular job.

Messier did in fact make 13 original comet discoveries which are still attributed to him today. But what amateur astronomers of today remember him for is not his comet discoveries by the 1101 objects listed in his catalog of non-cometary objects. There is a certain irony in that his compilation was intended to be of objects which might be confused for comets by other comet hunters. It was a sort of check-list: think you've found a new comet? If it's in this list, you've made a mistake, go look again.

Since I've not observed all of the objects in his catalog and can't even find some of them, I'm something of a flop as an observational astronomer. My problem, of course, is that I've been bitten by the imaging bug. And since most (but not all) "deep-sky objects" are fairly small, they show up as tiny blotches on most of my wide-field images. Still, here is a (small) collection of things which I have imaged in some form that are found in Messier's catalog.


1 The catalog contains 110 objects, but there has been some dispute over how many it should contain. Messier did not discover all of the objects, he compiled them, but the issue is that some appear to be duplicates and a few are not where he indicated they were. For a fascinating detective story of what Messier probably saw in those few cases, you might find Stephen James O'Meara's book The Messier Objects interesting. The book is written from an observer's perspective with commentary on the history and quotes from Messier's notes.