The Messier Catalog

For a few months around the New Year of 1744, the world was treated to a spectacular cosmic display as Comet C/1743 X1 (Comet de Chéseaux) passed though the inner solar system. This particular comet was among the brightest in history and as the comet made its approach towards the sun, an extremely rare phenomenon occurred. For about a week in early March the comet developed a ?fan? of six distinct tails clearly visible in the morning twilight. Among those who witnessed this dazzling event was a 13 year old French boy named Charles Messier.

This experience profoundly affected the boy which inspired him to later become a respected astronomer obsessed hunting for new comets. While scouring the sky night after night for new passing comets, he would frequently come across unchanging glowing patches that often misdirected his observations. In an effort to reduce his frustration and time wasted confusing them for possible comet candidates, Messier published the Catalogue of Nebulae and Star Clusters in 1781, a seemingly inconspicuous list of about 100 of these ?not-comet? objects.

While Messier made many exciting comet discoveries throughout his life, it was this catalog that cemented his place in history as one of the fathers of modern astronomy. Today the objects published in that original catalog are known as the Messier Objects. They represent some of the most easily observed deep-sky targets seen from earth which makes them some of the most valued and studied objects within astronomy as well as among the most celebrated targets among amateur astronomers.

If you want to experience some of the best the night sky has to offer, the Messier Catalog is where to start. Experienced amateurs can even attempt the highly challenging Messier Marathon, where it is possible between mid-March to early April for stargazers to go sun up to sun down trying to observe all 110 famous objects in a single night!

Whether you book a private stargazing program with Wyoming Stargazing or just come hang out at one of our weekly public events, many of the deep-sky objects we love to observe are part of the Messier Catalog. Here are some of our absolute favorites that you can see through our enormous 22? Dobsonian telescopes!

Credit: Davide De Martin & the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator

M45 – The Pleiades

  • Location: Taurus
  • Distance: 440 lightyears
  • Age: ~100 million years old
Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto ( Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

M42 – The Orion Nebula

  • Location: Orion
  • Distance: 1,350 lightyears
  • Age: ~2 million years old
Credit: NASA, ESA, and C. Robert O?Dell (Vanderbilt University)

M57 – The Ring Nebula

  • Location: Lyra
  • Distance: 2,500 lightyears
  • Age: ~1,600 years old
Credit: NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

M1 – The Crab Nebula

  • Location: Taurus
  • Distance: 6,500 lightyears
  • Age: 970 years old
Credit: M31 optical image courtesy of NSF/AURA/NOAO/REU program/B. Schoening and V. Harvey

M31 – The Andromeda Galaxy

  • Location: Andromeda
  • Distance: 2.5 million lightyears
  • Age: ~10 billion years old!

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