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Sunday, April 20, 2014

‘M’ is for Messier

Ed Stephens Jr.

I always like a success story with an interesting twist, and so much the better if it combines old school with modern times. And thus we make the acquaintance of Charles Messier, a Frenchman who wrote his legacy on the very heavens above.

It’s great timing: Those heavens get a lot of attention this time of year. As springtime approaches many exotic galaxies are climbing into their most viewable positions. These galaxies are often named with an “M” for “Messier.” When astronomers talk about M31, M94, and so on, they’re referring to galaxies from Messier’s catalog of 110 celestial objects, such objects to include not only galaxies but other intriguing stuff like nebulae and star clusters.

Even in today’s high tech age, when telescopes are whizzing around on satellites, the Messier catalog, the first version of which was published over 240 years ago, is still a player.

So let’s hear it for old school!

The great twist in the story is that Messier’s fame isn’t rooted in what he wanted to find but rather in what he didn’t want to find.

After all, Charles Messier (1730-1817) was mostly a comet hunter. But his efforts to discover comets were often stymied by finding “false positives” of other celestial objects. He eventually started compiling a list of these non-comet objects so he could keep track of them and not be distracted by them.

So Messier’s catalog started out as a cosmic “do not call” list from a comet hunter. Messier did find his share of comets, of course, so everything’s cool on that count, just in case you were wondering.

As the years went by and his catalog grew, it’s possible that he kept finding new stuff for it for its own sake, not merely as a comet-distraction list. But either way, well, there it is.

You might wonder if any normal person can see any of the stuff I’m blabbering about. Well, sure; that’s the whole point. Much of the stuff can be seen with mere binoculars, and some can even be seen with the bare eyeball. The Web has this stuff listed all over the place and books are devoted to it as well.

Let’s go raw eyeball here for a couple of examples.

“Messier 45,” or M45 for short, is the Pleiades, a sparkling little group of stars. This group is easily seen with just a casual glance, though, of course, aiming binoculars or telescopes at the thing will reveal ever more stars.

The Japanese call this group “Subaru.” Yes, that’s right, just like the car.

Take a look at a Subaru logo and you’ll notice it depicts an array of stars. Those are the Pleiades, Messier 45. The stars are essentially a family formed from the same bunch of gas. But as they age they will eventually drift apart and float away into the cold, harsh universe.

Here’s some more night sky awesomeness available to the bare eyeball: Messier 42, otherwise known as the Orion Nebula. I’ll note that the Chinese phrase “three stars” refers to the three stars of Orion’s belt, and that’s just the place to start.

Hanging down from this belt is a line of dimmer stars. I count three of them, but I don’t know if there is an official tally. Anyway, these depict Orion’s sword. The middle part of this line has a fuzzy haze. That haze is the Orion Nebula, which is an array of lively cosmic gas that is a star factory. M42 is one of the most famous, and most photographed, areas of the sky.

It’s amazing that your mere eyeball can see this space cloud from about 9 quadrillion miles away. It took that light 1,500 years to make the journey to Earth from M42. These distances are, of course, ball park, since nobody has actually driven the route and noted the odometer settings.

If you want to find the Pleiades or Orion, a few minutes on the Web should do the trick. Both are in Saipan’s skies right now. Better yet, and a whole lot more fun on Saipan, find a boat captain and ask; these salts are usually quite knowledgeable about celestial signposts.

One of my pals has observed, and photographed, all 110 of the Messier objects. That’s a fairly common project for dedicated amateur astronomers. And this is the time of year when some astronomy clubs hold “Messier marathons,” as members race to see who can espy the most Messier objects in the least amount of time. All the foregoing is too hardcore for me, though. I’m just a slob in a beach chair and the only thing I’m racing to is my bag of potato chips.

There are, of course, more recent catalogs of celestial objects, but Messier’s is still a bedrock reference and a staple of terminology.

So the next time you’re eyeballing the night skies from your beachside barbecue, hoist a toast to the M-man himself. The guy was hunting comets, but he landed far bigger game.

Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at [URL=”http://edstephensjr.com”]EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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