Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 2:32 pm | Fair 59º


Dennis Mammana: Comets Aside, a Search of Charles Messier’s Gold Mine Is the Real Treasure

Look for Charles Messier’s celestial gold mine after dark this week. Click to view larger
Look for Charles Messier’s celestial gold mine after dark this week. ( illustration)

Back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries — long before anyone had any real idea of all that lay out there among the stars — a French astronomer spent his nights scouring the sky for his prey.

Charles Messier scanned the heavens in search of new comets, hoping that these would lead him to fame and fortune.

To discover a comet, he knew he had to spot these long before they entered the inner solar system and sprouted an obvious tail, while they still appeared as faint smudges of light.

Then he had to watch diligently from night to night as they drifted slowly among the pinpoint stars. Only in this way could he be sure his discovery was a wandering comet and not some permanent feature of the cosmos.

During his nightly searches, however, Messier encountered dozens of false comets — hazy patches of light that never moved, no matter how long he watched.

What were these mystery objects? Messier didn’t know, and, what’s more, he didn’t care. They weren’t comets, and that was that.

So to avoid wasting more of his time on these stationary smudges, and to prevent himself and other comet hunters from being fooled, he carefully recorded their celestial positions and compiled a list of all that he found.

During his long career, Messier discovered 13 comets, though none of these led him to the fame and fortune he was seeking. Ironically, it’s his list of celestial nuisance objects for which he is remembered!

The list — today known to every astronomer as the Messier Catalogue — contains more than 100 of the most remarkable sights in the heavens: star clusters, nebulae, galaxies and more.

Stargazers can use binoculars to find many of these “faint fuzzies” (as astronomers often call them today) and can even spot some with the unaided eye, but only if you observe from a dark location without city lights. Scan a small telescope along the thickest part of the Milky Way low toward the south-southeastern sky on early evenings in July and, just like Messier you’ll easily discover even more.

Here, among the stars of the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius, where the Milky Way appears its widest and most brilliant, Messier objects abound. Many of these in this region are star clusters — immense families of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of stars bound together by gravitation.

Some of the finest are M11 (the 11th entry in Messier’s Catalogue), M6, M7 and M22.

Others might be wispy clouds of gas and dust inside of which new stars and planetary systems are being born; M8, M16 and M20 are among the most spectacular of these.

Still, others appearing elsewhere around the sky might be distant galaxies — island universes composed of hundreds of billions of stars each — of which our Milky Way is just one.

Every summer when I gaze at these cosmic spectacles I can’t help wondering whether Messier would have been so bothered by finding them had he known the marvels that he was inadvertently discovering.

This summer, be sure to get away from city lights and do your own search for Messier’s amazing celestial gold mine!

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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