Besides being a considerably successful comet hunter and deep-sky discoverer, Charles Messier was also a skilled carthographer of the heavens. This was of particular importance for him, because for every comet discovery, he published a map of the comet's trajectory in the Memoirs of the French Academy of Sciences. These maps, although not intended to be so, were also some of the most up-to-date star charts available.

Our map presents the path of the comet of 1779 from the constellation Hercules thru Corona and Bootes to Coma Berenices and Virgo.

If we look carefully at the detail of the region around Coma at the right, we see a number of nebulous objects with labels like "nebula 1777" or "nebula 1780." These are some of the nebulae that Messier was publishing almost simultaneously in his famous nebula catalog of 1781. There are no less than 28 Messier objects depicted in the full comet map, many of them for the first time.

Messier's chart of the Coma-Virgo Region

The path of the comet in the first week of April, 1779, is charted at lower left. There are a number of nebulae depicted in Coma, indicated by the letters a,b,c, etc. as well as several others identified by their year of discovery. There is also a cluster of eleven newly discovered nebulae at lower right, numbered 1 to 11. These are part of the famous Virgo cluster of nebulae.

In this chart, the following Messier objects can be identified:

  • M49 = "Nebul. 1771",
  • M58--M60 = "3 Nebul. 1779" (r-to-l),
  • M61 = "Neb. 1779",
  • M84--M91 and M98--M100 = "Onze Neb. Observees en 1781", labeled with numbers as follows:

    For his star charts, Messier used the plates in the Fortin edition of John Flamsteed's Atlas celeste of 1776.

    From the Out of This World: The Golden Age of the Celestial Atlas Exhibition of Rare Books from the Collection of the Linda Hall Library.

    Hartmut Frommert
    Christine Kronberg

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    Last Modification: February 7, 1998