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home : columns : columns July 22, 2017

5/27/2014 5:08:00 PM
Stars over Sisters
A portrait of French astronomer Charles Messier, at the age of 40. photo provided
+ click to enlarge
A portrait of French astronomer Charles Messier, at the age of 40. photo provided

By Cami Kornowski

Throughout history there have a number of great scientists who have contributed mightily to the field of astronomy. A short list of these individuals includes the likes of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and Albert Einstein.

But to the amateur astronomer, the work of French astronomer Charles Messier cannot be minimized.

Charles Messier (pronounced "mezi-yay") was born on June 26, 1730, in France. He became interested in astronomy as a teenager when he saw a six-tailed comet at age 14 and a solar eclipse at age 18. When he was 21, he joined the astronomer of the French Navy in studying and keeping detailed records of the sky. He later would become the chief astronomer of the Navy himself, in 1771.

In 1757 he began looking for a comet that Edmond Halley predicted would return (now known as Halley's Comet). What Messier found instead, due to misguided directions, was a fuzzy patch of sky, in the constellation of Taurus. He observed it for a while and, noticing that it did not move in relation to the surrounding stars, concluded it was not a comet. He called this object M1, or Messier 1, which is also known as the Crab Nebula.

As Messier continued to search the sky for comets, he came across more of these dim, fuzzy objects that didn't move. So that future astronomers would not waste time believing they were comets, he devoted himself to compiling a list of them, carefully recording their positions in the sky. Messier began adding objects discovered by other astronomers to his catalog and by 1781 it contained 103 objects, 40 of which Messier had discovered. In later years, after careful study of his notes, Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg and Dr. Owen Gingerich suggested that another seven objects be added to bring the total to 110.

While Messier did discover 13 comets over his lifetime, the Messier Catalog of non-stellar objects is what he is most famous for. The true nature of these "fuzzy" objects was not discovered until well into the twentieth century. Some of them turned out to be star clusters, nebulae, and far-off galaxies. A few of the more well-known Messier objects are: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest galaxy to the Milky Way; M42 and M43, the Orion Nebula; M45, the Pleiades, a seven-star open cluster; and M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy.

The Messier Catalog is still used by astronomers today, as it contains some of the brightest deep-sky objects visible from the Northern Hemisphere. Many amateur astronomers undertake the task of finding as many Messier objects in one night as they can, which has become known as the Messier Marathon.

While you're searching for the Messier objects, you can also look for the planets that are visible during June. Mercury is found low in the WNW sky early in June but disappears later in the month, reaching inferior conjunction on June 19. Jupiter is also still in the western sky, but will set just an hour after sunset by June 30.

Mars shines brightly in Virgo at nightfall. Look for an orange-colored "star" in the southern sky. The best planetary show will feature the planet Saturn, located in the southeast. Its spectacular ring system is easily visible in almost any telescope.

The summer solstice begins at 3:51 a.m., PDT, on June 21, and signals the beginning of summer for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. This means that the sun will have reached its northernmost position in the sky, and the north pole of the earth will be tilted towards it, providing us with the longest period of daylight hours.

The lunar cycle for June begins with the moon in its first quarter on June 5. The full moon falls on June 12, last quarter on June 19, and the new moon on June 27.

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