Farmer’s Calendar for April 2017

December 2, 2016

Astronomer Charles Messier’s Catalog of Celestial Wonders

The Andromeda Galaxy may contain a trillion stars. It’s the most distant object visible to the naked eye—more than two million light-years away.

Astronomers know it as M31. The M is for Charles Messier, a French astronomer who died 200 years ago this month. Over his long life and career—he lived to be 86—he discovered 13 comets. King Louis XV nicknamed him “the ferret of comets.”

Ironically, Messier is best known for his eponymous Catalog, a list of 110 objects in deep space—some that he discovered, some discovered by others. He didn’t know exactly what they were, but they were not comets and thus “not to be looked for.” He called them “nebulae,” the Greek word for clouds.

Indeed, many of them are clouds of gases, some the remnants of supernovae, the colossal explosions of dying stars. M1, the first on the list, is just that—the debris of a supernova that appeared in 1054.

The Messier Catalog is a curiosity now, but it raises an interesting question: How many other marvels, then and now, are dismissed as “not to be looked for”?

(transcript updated 4/7/17)

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