Since the earliest times, humans could view stars at night whenever it happened not to be cloudy. As in prehistoric times, there was barely no light polution in most regions of Earth, our ancestors could view stars of very faint light, and thus some of those objects we now summarize as Deep Sky Objects. This way, some of these objects are known as long as anything is known.
The most remarkable such "object" is certainly a galaxy, our own Milky Way; however we will not count this one here. Essentially the same is true for the most remarkable "moving" star cluster, the Ursa Major group, which consists of most of the stars in the famous "Big Dipper" asterism and makes up the more conspicous part of Ursa Major. These omissions are justified first because most people nowadays don't view them as "Deep Sky Objects", and second because their nature, i.e. that the Milky Way is a galaxy, and that the Ursa Major stars are a physical cluster, did not become apparent before modern times.
Some of the bright star clusters must also have been known very early, even before the time covered by any ancient records; these certainly include the Pleiades (M45) and the Hyades clusters in Taurus, which are conspicuous to the naked eye, and recorded early: The first certain documents on the Pleiades and Hyades are by Homer (8th century BC) in his Ilias (about 750 B.C.) and Hesiod (c. 740-670 B.C.) in his Works and Days (about 720 to 700 B.C.). The Pleiades are also mentioned in the bible, first by prophet Amos who is believed to have given his message in 750 B.C. or 749 B.C. (thus about the same time as Homer's Ilias). Second, reference is given in the Book of Job, the dating of which is disputed but may be about 1,000 B.C. (the time of Kings David and Solomon), or even earlier (the time of Moses, 13th to 16th century B.C.), or considerably later (3rd to 5th century B.C.). Less safe are possible early notions of the Andromeda Nebula (M31) found in Babylonian or Sumerian sources, and of the Orion Nebula (M42) which can be interpreted in Central American, Mayan folk tales.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the two Magellanic Clouds (LMC -- the Large Magellanic Cloud, and SMC -- the Small Magellanic Cloud) were certainly known since earliest times, but not much recordings are preserved from the ancient Southerners.
It may be that Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) has recorded ancient observations of the open star cluster M41 in Canis Major around 325 BC; this would make this cluster the faintest object reported in ancient times. According to Burnham, based on the quote by P. Doig in 1925 of a statement made by J.E. Gore, it could be possible that Aristotle also observed M39 in Cygnus about that time, as a "cometary appearing object."
About 300-250 B.C., Greek poet Aratos (c. 310-245 B.C.), in his work, Phainomeina [Heavenly Phenomena], mentions the Praesepe Star Cluster (M44) as "Nebula in Cancer."
Hipparchus (c. 190-120 B.C.), the famous ancient Greek astronomer, did his observations from Rhodes between 146 and 127 BC. He was the first astronomer who compiled a catalog af stars; this work was perhaps triggered by the observation of a "New Star" (Nova) in the constellation Scorpius in 134 BC. He included two "nebulous objects" in his catalog, the Praesepe star cluster (M44) and the Double Star Cluster in Perseus, now called h+chi Persei (NGC 869+884, not in Messier's catalog).
Ptolemy (c. 85-165 A.D.), in his Great Syntaxas compiled 127--151 AD (better known as the Almagest), lists 7 objects, 3 of which are asterisms of little interest and not physical objects, two are those taken from Hipparchos (M44 and the Double Cluster in Perseus), but two are new: "A Nebula behind the Sting of Scorpius" which has now been identified as the conspicuous open cluster M7, which the present author has proposed to name "Ptolemy's Cluster," and the Coma Berenices Star Cluster, now cataloged as Melotte 111 (but not in Messier's or the NGC or IC catalog).
The first really "nebulous" object to be discovered and documented was the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), observed around 905 AD and documented 964 AD by the Persian astronomer Al Sufi (903-986 A.D.) in his Book of Fixed Stars. He also mentions a "nebulous star" little more than 2 degrees north of Delta Velorum, which is most certainly the open cluster IC 2391, o Velorum. He also includes 6 of Ptolemy's objects, and a new "asterism" in Vulpecula (actually Brocchi's Cluster, Collinder 399, also nicknamed the "Coathanger Cluster"), so a total of 9 entries, and mentions the Large Magellanic Cloud as visible from Southern Arabia.
While not a deep sky discovery as the others mentioned here, the occurance of a supernova on July 4, 1054, was observed and recorded by Chinese and (very probably) by ancient North American astronomers; this supernova has produced the Crab Nebula (M1), one of the most interesting deep sky objects.
No more new deep sky objects were discovered until 1499, when Portugese navigator Vicente Yanez Pinzon (1463-1514) first reported the observation of the Coalsack Dark Nebula. Little later, in 1503-4, Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512), in a letter on his third voyage, reported of three "Canopes," two bright and one dark; these objects are now thought to be the Large and the Small Magellanic Clouds as well as the Coalsack. It was Peter Martyr (1457-1526) who first gave a formal description of the Coalsack in the time between 1511 and 1521. In 1519, Fernando de Magellan (1480-1521) reported the sighting of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. This brought the number of reported deep-sky objects to 12, although Al Sufi's work was not generally known at that time, before Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) introduced the telescope into astronomy in 1609. At this event, Galileo revealed that Praesepe (M44) was not a nebula but a star cluster.
Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) was the first to discover a true gaseous nebula, the Orion Nebula M42, in 1610, also the first deep sky discovery with a telescope. Jesuit astronomer J.-B. Cysatus (1588-1657) independently found M42 in 1611, but both discoveries of this object didn't get publicly known for a long time. Galileo Galilei, who had not noticed the nebulous nature but only numerous stars in the region of M42 in 1609, seems to be the first to have resolved the three brightest stars of the Trapezium Cluster in the Orion Nebula on February 4, 1617, but despite Galileo's fame, also this discovery didn't get widely known. Shortly after the discovery of the Orion Nebula, in 1612, Simon Marius (1570-1624) found (independently re-discovered) the Andromeda Galaxy (then Andromeda Nebula, M31).
Longly forgotten and rediscovered only in the early 1980s (Serio et.al., 1985), Giovanni Batista Hodierna (1597-1660), astronomer at the court of the Duke of Montechiaro, compiled a catalog, the first catalog exclusively devoted to the "nebulous" objects, which we now call deepsky objects. Hodierna's list contains some 40 entries, including 19 real nebulous objects, found with a simple Galilean refractor of magnification 20, and printed in Palermo in 1654. Included is an independent rediscovery of the Andromeda Nebula (M31), of the Orion Nebula (M42), and one of Brocchi's cluster, a first description of the Alpha Persei Moving Cluster, and at least 9 (probably 13 and perhaps 15) own true discoveries: M6, M8 (the Lagoon Nebula), M36, M37, M38, M41, M47, NGC 2362, and NGC 6231, as well as probably M33, M34, NGC 752, and NGC 2451, and perhaps NGC 2169 and NGC 2175.
Christiaan Huygens' (1629-1695) independent rediscovery of the Orion Nebula M42 in 1656 eventually became widely known; he independently rediscovered the three brightest stars in the Trapezium Cluster which is embedded in this nebula. The fourth bright Trapezium star, Theta1 Orionis B, was found by Jean Picard in 1673, and independently recovered by Christiaan Huygens in 1684. The fifth cluster star "E" was not discovered before 1826 when it was found by Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve with a 9.5-inch refractor in Dorpat. The sixth star, "F", was found by John Herschel on February 13, 1830, the seventh, "G", by Alvan Clark in 1888 when testing his 36-inch refractor of Lick Observatory, and the eighth, "H" by E.E. Barnard later in 1888 with the same telescope.
Johan Hevel or Hevelke (known as Hevelius, 1611-1687) from Dantzig compiled a catalog of 1564 stars, Prodomus Astronomiae, published posthumously together with his star atlas, Uranographia. He included a total of 16 nebulous stars, 2 of which are actual objects (the Andromeda Galaxy M31 and the Praesepe star cluster M44), while the other 14 are asterisms or non-existent. Derham and Messier spent a lot of observing time to find these "nebulae"; among them is a double star in Ursa Major, which Messier believed to have been identified (it is M40) -- we now know that he probably he took another double star than Hevelius. Hevelius is also one of the first to have seen M22, but the discovery of this first known globular cluster was generally assigned to Abraham Ihle (1627-c. 1699) in 1665.
In his star catalog Historia Coelestis Britannica, published in 1712 and revised in 1725, John Flamsteed (1646-1719) refers to several "nebulae" and "nebulous stars". This includes many of the then-known objects (Coma Cluster Mel 111, h+chi Persei, M31, M42) plus three independent discoveries, including re-discoveries of unknown Hodierna objects M8 and M41, and his own true original discovery of NGC 2244 around the star 12 Monocerotis (associated with the Rosette Nebula NGC 2237-9, neither the cluster nor the nebula in Messier's catalog).
Gottfried Kirch (1639-1710), who was observing from Berlin, and known for his observations of stars and comets, discovered M11 in 1681 and M5 in 1702.
Edmond Halley (1656-1742) published a list of six "luminous spots or patches" in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for 1715. Halley's modest list was the second catalog of deepsky objects after Hodierna's, and the first to become widely known. It includes Halley's own discoveries of globular clusters Omega Centauri (on a journey 1677 to St. Helena) and M13 (1714), and the previously known objects M42, M31, M22, and M11.
Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan (1678-1771), before 1731, found a nebulosity around a star north of the Great Orion Nebula, which became known as M43 (this was published 1733). Shortly after this, John Bevis (1695-1771) discovered the Crab Nebula M1. He created a star atlas, which he called Uranographia Britannica, which was completed in 1750, but due to the bankrupt of the publisher, only one or two printings were produced, and the complimentary catalog was never published. Messier must have had access to a copy of this atlas, as he refers to the "English Atlas" several times, e.g. in the descriptions for the objects M1, M11, M13, M22, M31, and M35. Oddly, the discovery of M35 is ascribed to de Chéseaux in 1746 by Kenneth Glyn Jones, although it seems that Bevis might have seen it earlier, as it was in his atlas.
William Derham (1657-1735) published a list of 16 nebulous objects in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for 1733, 14 of them being from Hevelius' catalog, and the other two from Halley's list, overall the third catalog devoted to deepsky objects. Only two of the objects were real, M31 and M7, all others were nonexistent, or uninteresting asterisms (including Hevelius' "nebula" which led to Messier's discovery of M40), fooling other observers (including Messier) using this widespread compilation; it was reprinted in the Memoirs of the French Academy of Sciences in 1734, and included in de Maupertuis' book Discours sur la Figure des Astres of 1742. Derham was also the first to resolve the stars of open cluster M11.
About in 1746, Philippe Loys de Chéseaux (1718-1751) observed several clusters and "nebulous stars", and compiled a catalog of their positions. According to Kenneth Glyn Jones and the Webb Society Deep-Sky Observer's Handbook, Vol. 3 (Open and Globular Star Clusters), 8 of them were original discoveries: IC 4665 (No. 2, maybe doubty), NGC 6633 (No. 3), M16 (No. 4), M25 (No. 5), M35 (No. 12, but see the remark at John Bevis), M71 (No. 13), M4 (No. 19), and M17 (No. 20). Moreover, he independently re-discovered M6 (No. 1), NGC 6231 (No. 9) and M22 (No. 17). De Chéseaux's list was given to Reaumur, who presented it to the French Academy of Sciences on August 6, 1746, but it was not otherwise published. It was investigated by Bigourdan in 1884 and became more wellknown only then. Besides observing nebulous patches in the sky, de Chéseaux was probably the first to formulate Olbers' paradox.
Jean-Dominique Maraldi (1709-1788), also known as Maraldi II, discovered two globular clusters: M15 on September 7, 1746, and M2 on September 11, 1746.
Le Gentil (with his full name Guillaume-Joseph-Hyacinthe-Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaziere, 1725-1792) discovered M32, the Andromeda Galaxy's companion, on October 29, 1749. He also decribed both cluster and the gaseous nebula in M8, the Lagoon Nebula, in the same year, and probably discovered globular cluster NGC 6712. He independently found Hodierna's objects M36 and M38.
Nicholas Louis de la Caille (Lacaille, sometimes refferred to as "Abbe Lacaille", 1713-1762) observed stars and Deep Sky objects in the Southern sky from South Africa during his 1751-52 journey, invented several southern constellations (many of which are still in use), and compiled a catalog of Southern Deep-Sky objects with 42 entries, 32 of which are real. Among them are 24 original and at least two independent rediscoveries. Lacaille's major original discoveries include the Eta Carinae Nebula NGC 3372, globular cluster 47 Tucanae (NGC 104), the Tarantula Nebula NGC 2070 in the Large Magellanic Cloud, and spiral galaxy M83, the first discovered galaxy beyond the Local Group.
These were the last discoveries in the deep sky before Charles Messier (1730-1817) started to compile his catalog, and made his first original discovery of M3 in 1764. For more than a decade, Charles Messier was alone in looking for clusters and nebulous objects. During that time, he discovered 27 objects of which 25 are actually deepsky objects (the other two are the Sagittarius star cloud M24 and the double star M40).
In later deepsky observations, Messier himself originally discovered 19 more nebulous objects (18 deepsky plus the star quartett M73) in the subsequent years until 1781, to bring his score to 44 original discoveries, and 20 more independent co-discoveries.
In late 1774, Johann Elert Bode (1747-1826) joined those who looked for new nebulous objects with success: He discovered M81 and M82 on the last day of that year (December 31), and 3 more objects are subsequently quoted to him (M53 in 1775, M92 in 1777, and an independent discovery of M64 in 1779). Bode compiled a deepsky catalog of 75 entries published 1777 in the Astronomisches Jahrbuch for 1779, and entitled "A Complete Catalog of hitherto observed Nebulous Stars and Star Clusters". However, according to Kenneth Glyn Jones, this list was inflated by a lot of non-existent objects and asterisms gathered from Hevelius and elsewhere; it contains only about 50 real objects. His two lates discoveries of M92 and M64 were published later in the Jahrbuch for 1782, in late 1779. Two more independent co-discoveries by Bode, of M48 and IC 4665, are reported in his atlas and catalog, "Vorstellung der Gestirne", published 1782.
About five years after Bode, in 1779, when Messier and Bode were still active in compiling their lists, four more astronomers entered the "club" of successful deepsky discoverers: British astronomer Edward Pigott (1753-1824) discovered M64 on March 23, 1779, just 12 days before Bode (April 4, 1779) and roughly a year before Messier independently found it on March 1, 1780. Johann Gottfried Koehler (or Köhler, 1745-1801), who had independently found M81 and M82 in the time between 1772 and 1778 (so maybe he did it before Bode), had discovered M67 this year or perhaps earlier, and found M59 and M60 on April 11, 1779, when tracing Comet Bode 1779. While Messier found, in addition, M58 on that occasion, it was Barnabus Oriani (1752-1832) who first discovered M61. Koehler published a catalog of 20 entries in 1779. Finally, Messier's friend Pierre Méchain (1744-1804) began his astronomical observing career, and made his first original discovery of M63 on June 14, 1779. Subsequently, Méchain discovered originally about 25 objects, most of which he contributed to Messier's catalog, as he was observing in close cooperation with Charles Messier. His other findings were listed in a letter to Bernoulli of Berlin dated May 6, 1783.
As a major milestone in deepsky discovery, the Messier Catalog was published in its final version of 103 objects in 1781 in the Connoissance des Temps for 1784. This catalog was extended by 20th century astronomers by additional objects discovered by Messier and Méchain: In 1921, Camille Flammarion added M104 from Messier's notes, in 1947, Helen Sawyer-Hogg decided to add three objects from Méchain's letter (M105 to M107), in 1953, Owen Gingerich added M108 and M109 based on Messier's description of M97, and Kenneth Glyn Jones added M110 based on later publications by Messier. This brought the Messier catalog to 110 entries, all of which belong to real objects (though four or five of them were missed for over a century, and there is still some controversy about M102). Also, there is one object mentioned without individual numbering, the companion of M51, NGC 5195 or M51B (discovered by Pierre Méchain), and the identification of M109 is not so unique: Pierre Méchain had observed NGC 3953 which we call M109B here, while Messier gives a position where the coordinates point to two different objects: Right Ascension is that of Méchain's NGC 3953 (M109B), but the declination coincides with NGC 3992, which was Owen Gingerich's 1953 identification for M109; see our discussion on this topic. It contains the majority of all clusters, nebulae, and galaxies known up to April, 1782, when M107 was the last Messier object to be discovered (by Pierre Méchain).
Of the 110 modern objects in the Messier Catalog, 40 are galaxies, 29 globular and 27 open clusters, 6 diffuse and 4 planetary nebulae, 1 supernova remnant and 3 "other" objects (star cloud M24, double star M40, and the group or asterism of 4 stars, M73). The brightest objects are, in this sequence for brightness, the Pleiades (M45), the Andromeda "Nebula" (M31), the star cluster Praesepe (M44), the Orion Nebula (M42), and on rank 5, open cluster M7 in Scorpius. The faintest Messier Objects are of 10th magnitude: M108 of visual mag 10.0, M76 and M98 of visual mag 10.1, and M91 of mag 10.2. The southernmost object is open cluster M7 in Scorpius at declination -34:49.
Both Messier and Méchain have stated to have observed more deepsky objects, but as there are no notes or hints available helping to identify them, these must be probably considered as lost, at least until further documents pop up from their hiding places in history.
The Messier Catalog did in particular impress the great German-British astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm (William) Herschel (1738-1822), who by that time had become famous especially because of his discovery of planet Uranus in 1781. Herschel received his copy of Messier's catalog from a friend, William Watson, on December 7, 1781. At that time, he was still working as organist at Bath (which he gave up in May, 1782), and a skilled telescope maker. He started an extensive scan of the skies he could observe from England (i.e., the northern sky), with large telescopes of up to a 48-inch aperture, 40-foot focal length giant which he set up himself on August 28, 1789 (on that first day he discovered Saturn's moon Enceladus with this new scope). Published in 3 steps, Herschel cataloged over 2500 discoveries, most of which are real deepsky objects. As he had the best telescope of that time, he was without competition. He was assisted by his sister Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848) who was an avid observer herself; she discovered a small number of the clusters and nebulae in Herschel's catalog (among them is an independent discovery of M110 = H V.18, which Messier had discovered but not cataloged 10 years earlier, and an independent rediscovery of the missing Messier open cluster M48 = H VI.22), and discovered 8 comets.
William Herschel classified the nebulous objects in eight groups:
William (and Caroline) Herschel had virtually exhausted the northern skies with object discoveries around 1800. Only few discoveries occurred in the early years of the 19th century: Karl Ludwig Harding (1765-1834) discovered the Helix Nebula, NGC 7293 to 1824 and independently found 7 others, Nicolò Cacciatore (1780-1841) discovered southern globular cluster NGC 6541 in 1826, and Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve (1793-1864) found NGCs 629, 6210, 6572, and 6648 to 1827. But the southern sky was still waiting to be explored, and it was James Dunlop (1795-1848) who made the first major observations there after Lacaille. He went to New South Wales, Australia, in 1821, accompanying a Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, He was keeper of the Brisbane observatory at Paramatta, 1823-1827, and compiled a star catalog (the Brisbane Catalog of over 7000 southern stars). His observations of deepsky objects from that time were compiled to "A Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars in the Southern Hemisphere observed in New South Wales" of 629 discovery entries. This catalog was sent to William Herschel's son, John Herschel, who presented it to the Royal Society in 1827. Dunlop was awarded for this work with the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and with Lalande Medal of the French Academy. However, this did not prevent a lot of his "objects" to be nonexistent, or so badly described that they couldn't be safely identified later: Only about half his entries can be related to real objects.
John Frederick William (John) Herschel (1792-1871) had continued his father's work, and added 525 new entries (northern objects) in a catalog published in 1833. But John Herschel also wanted to catalog the southern skies. On November 13, 1833, he and his family went on ship to sail to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, where they arrived on March 4, 1834. He intensively studied the southern skies in the subsequent years. His observations of southern nebulous objects were published in 1847 as a catalog with 1713 entries. Evidently, he summarized his and his father's, as well as others' deepsky discoveries in his great General Catalogue of over 5000 entries. This catalog was extended by John Louis Emil Dreyer (1852-1926) to include new discoveries in 1877, and served as the foundations for that astronomer's famous New General Catalogue (NGC) of 1888, which, together with its two-part supplement, the Index Catalogue (IC) of 1895 and 1908, is still the standard reference for the deepsky objects listed in it.
The work of the Herschels finally brought the great "nebula" (and cluster) discovery time to a conclusion. Nevertheless, it took time and new research methods (especially photography and spectroscopy), until the nature of the various deepsky objects was uncovered: The gaseous nature of the "true" nebulae was discovered by the British amateur and pioneer of spectroscopy William Huggins (1824-1910) in the 1860s, while only in the 1920s the true nature of galaxies as independent "island universes" like our Milky Way became apparent, due to the work of Edwin Hubble (1889-1953).
Thanks to Glen Cozens for communicating some acurate data on James Dunlop.
Last Modification: July 30, 2017