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Brief Biography of Charles Messier

Charles Messier (1730-1817) was a French astronomer who developed an intense interest in comet hunting. While he had other achievements to his credit, this was his chief occupation during his long observing career. In this, he was so successful that he probably observed half of the comets known in his time. He discovered about twenty. It was to keep track of the star clusters and nebulae which might have otherwise confused him by their comet-like appearance, that he began to catalog and describe them. In commenting on his catalog in later years, he frankly stated that he had compiled it in order to aid other comet hunters. There is a slight touch of irony in the fact that Messier's chief claim to immortality grew out of his efforts to rid himself of a nuisance to what, he felt, was his important life's work. As might be expected, Messier's telescopes were all modest instruments, none of them exceeding the capacity of telescopes amateurs can expect to own today.

Messier did not discover all the objects in his catalog and he never made any such claim. Many of the objects were called to his attention by his contemporaries, notably Pierre Méchain and the fact was always carefully noted. The catalog was published in several stages as additions were made to it, the first 45 entries being printed in 1771. In its classic form, it contained 103 entries. Studies of Messier's papers and correspondence (Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg and Dr. Owen Gingerich) suggest that another four to six objects should be added to bring the total to 110.