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M Is For Messier

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M Is For Messier

How often in looking through books on astronomy have you noticed star clusters and nebulae designated by the letter M, followed by a number? Examples are M13, the globular cluster in Hercules; M31, the Andromeda galaxy, etc.

Astronomer Charles Messier

This M is the initial of the famed 18th century comet observer, Charles Messier, who was deeply interested in discovering comets, but was plagued by the same trouble that besets all comet hunters — he kept finding “comets” that were only star clusters and nebulae. His hopes were dashed so often that he kept a list of these deceiving objects, which he published in a catalogue. Messier didn’t have the slightest interest in these objects; they all were a nuisance to him. The 13 comets that Messier discovered and which he was so proud are long since forgotten. But his catalogue turned out to be amazingly useful to astronomers. His catalogue numbers have been retained and are the principal reason Messier is still remembered today.

Messier Objects Near Sagittarius and Scorpius
Almost due south at around 11 p.m. stargazers can spot Sagittarius, the archer. Some people see a teapot here. If you search this area with binoculars on a dark, moonless night, you’ll be rewarded with a night filled with discoveries. Sagittarius lies between us and the center of our galaxy. Here you will find many star clouds, separated by lanes of dark, absorbing material. You can find at least 15 of the items in the catalogue of Charles Messier, and many objects he did not list. Some have well-known names: M8 (Lagoon); M17, (Omega); M20, (Trifid). There are beautiful galactic clusters and dramatic globulars, as well as dark holes where dense clouds of dust obscure the background stars.

Move to the right to search through Scorpius for four more Messier objects, and north into Serpens and Scutum. Just north of M17 is the Eagle nebula, M16, the subject of the famous “Pillars of Creation” photograph by the Hubble Space Telescope; a large region of star formation.

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The “Pillars of Creation” Eagle Nebula taken from the Hubble Telescope. Photo https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/hubble-goes-high-definition-to-revisit-iconic-pillars-of-creation

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