Tom Burns - Stargazing

This time of year, the constellation Taurus, the Bull, is hard to miss. Around 10 p.m., its V-shaped head sits beautifully on the southeastern horizon. It’s certainly hard to miss the bright star Aldebaran, which forms the red, bloodshot eye of the angry Bull.

Over the centuries, thousands of amateur stargazers have trained their small telescopes and binoculars on a tiny fuzzy patch, called M1, just off the star that forms the bottom horn of the Bull. We now know that M1 is a supernova remnant, the expanding debris of a mighty star that exploded in 1054. We revel in its beauty, but its discoverer thought of it as a pain in the neck.

The “M” in M1 stands for Charles Messier, assistant to the head of the French naval observatory in 1758 when this ridiculous patch of fuzz passed into the field of his small telescope. Messier had a job to do, and M1 wasn’t helping any.

A bit earlier, in 1695, no one was quite sure what to make of another class of fuzzies called comets. Did they pass straight through our solar system never to be seen again or did they orbit the sun like planets? Edmund Halley believed that they were in orbit. If they were, they should return to view periodically.

To prove his point, Halley examined the historical record for comets and painstakingly calculated their possible orbits around the sun. Three of them had startlingly similar patterns — the comets sighted in 1531, 1607, and 1682. Halley concluded that these apparitions might in fact be one comet that returned to our earthly environs every 75 or 76 years. If so, the comet should return in late 1758 or early 1759.

The rest astronomical community took up the challenge, and the race to rediscover Halley’s comet was on. Charles Messier’s boss handed him the task of being the first to find the comet.

As Messier tells it, in late 1758 after a year of fruitless searching, he finally found what he was looking for and begged his boss for permission to proclaim his discovery to the world. Inexplicably, the head of the naval observatory made him wait a month to make his announcement. By that time, others had seen the comet, and Messier’s claim became the subject of intense ridicule.

Messier spent the rest of his life trying to live down the ignominy. He became obsessed with comets, discovering more than any other astronomer. As he searched, he ran into stray fuzzy patches that weren’t comets. He decided to catalog them, draw them, and mark their locations so that he could avoid them.

The first published version of his catalog in 1774 included 45 objects. (It eventually came to have 110.) Many of them could be confused with comets, but others obviously were not. Most notably, M45, the last on the initial list, was the spectacular star cluster called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. M45 clearly resolves into six stars with the unaided eye and had been known since ancient times.

A small telescope or binoculars resolve it into dozens of stars. Clearly, nobody could possibly confuse M45 for a comet. The list had taken on a life of its own.

Messier continued his search for comets unabated, but he clearly had become obsessed with other, presumably more distant, objects in the sky. Messier had become the first true “deep-sky” fanatic, a tradition that continues unabated to this very day among amateur telescopists around the world.

The search for “faint fuzzies,” as some amateurs affectionately call them, seems a somewhat frivolous hobby. However, as the centuries passed and telescopes got bigger, Messier’s nuisances began to explode into glittering star clusters, spinning whirlpools of light called galaxies, and complex clouds of glowing hydrogen gas in which stars are born. They are, without doubt, the most spectacular objects to see in a telescope.

The many comets Messier discovered are now mostly historical curiosities. However, in a couple of weeks, thousands of Christmas binoculars will be pointed with wonder at glorious Messier 45. And thousands of Christmas telescopes will gather first light from dim M1.

Not a night goes by that somewhere in the world somebody doesn’t observe from Messier’s list and speak Messier’s name – or at least his initial. They may not know it, but every observation they make is a celebration of Messier’s dogged determination and accidental glory.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.