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Messier 102

An article on the controversy by Hartmut Frommert
Messier 102 has been considered a "missing" Messier Object for a long time. In semi-recent publications, this entry in Messier's Catalog has been frequently taken for a duplication of the preceding one, M101. However, historical evidence tends to favor the view that M102 is identical to the galaxy NGC 5866.

French astronomer Charles Messier compiled his famous "Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters" during the years 1758 to 1781 (Messier 1781) - or 1782 if counting the last additions discovered by his colleague Pierre Méchain, which are contained in most modern versions of the catalog. Besides Messier's own discoveries, this catalog also contains objects known previously, of which Messier had checked the positions, and in particular also the contributions by Pierre Méchain, who had been collaborating with Messier in the years before 1781.

Contrary to prior and contemporary observers who had a large number of errors (nonexistent objects) in their lists, the entries of his catalog correspond to actual astronomical objects in all cases, perhaps with one exception, his entry number 102 (there are positional errors for 3 other objects, M47, M48, and M91, which could be figured out by the time).

In spring 1781, Messier and Méchain had taken great effort to discover and catalog new nebulous objects. Up to April 13, 1781 (a Friday btw), Messier had checked the positions of 100 objects. At that time, the deadline was approaching for contributions to the French yearbook, the "Connoissance des temps" for the year 1784, where the catalog was to be published. Therefore, Messier added the last three objects reported to him by Méchain without further verification at the end of the catalog, as No. 101, 102, and 103, with the remark that these were communicated to him "Through M[onsieur] Méchain, which M. Messier has not yet observed." The printed version of the catalog contains a position only for M101, while for M102 and M103, only descriptions are provided. However, Messier has added positions for both these objects to the personal copy of his catalog, see below.

Messier's description for M102 reads as follows (Messier 1781, p. 267):

102. Nebula between the stars Omicron Bootis and Iota Draconis: it is very faint, near it is a star of 6th magnitude.

About two years after the entry was made and published, Pierre Méchain retracted his discovery and claimed that the observation was an error, a duplicate observation of M101, and a star chart error. On May 6, 1783, he wrote a letter to Bernoulli of the Prussian Royal Academy in Berlin, which was published twice, first in small circulation in original French, in the Memoirs of the Berlin Academy (Méchain 1783), and second in some wider circulation and in German translation by Johann Elert Bode in the Astronomisches Jahrbuch for 1786 (Bode and Méchain 1783). Together with other contributions, including observations of the newly discovered planet Uranus, Méchain describes his observations of "nebulae," as far as they were not already included in Messier's catalog of 1781. Based on this letter, Helen Sawyer Hogg in 1947 (Sawyer Hogg 1947, Sawyer 1948) and Owen Gingerich in 1953 (Gingerich 1953) have added the objects M104 to M109 to the modern version of the Messier Catalog. In a short side remark following his nebula discoveries, Méchain retracts his discovery of M102 as follows:

I will add only that No. 101 & 102 on the p. 267 of the Connoissance des tems [for] 1784 are nothing but the same nebula, which has been taken for two, by an error in the [sky] charts.
For the publication in his Astronomisches Jahrbuch for 1786, Bode has rearranged the contents of this letter, put the remark on M102 in a more prominent place near the beginning of Méchain's nebula descriptions, and has enhanced it as follows:
On page 267 of the Connoissance des tems [sic] f. 1784, Mr. Messier lists under No. 102 a nebula, which I have discovered between Omicron Bootis and Iota Draconis: this is a mistake. This nebula is the same as the preceding No. 101. Mr. Messier, caused by an error in the sky charts, has confused this one in the list of my nebulous stars communicated to him.
Note that Méchain, in contrast to Bode, doesn't go into detail about the nature of the chart error, nor assign the error to either Messier or himself.

Despite Bode's publication and a mentioning by Guilliaume Bigourdan in 1907 (Bigourdan 1907), this reference got virtually forgotten for a long time. It was only recovered by Helen Sawyer Hogg in 1947/48 (Sawyer Hogg 1947, Sawyer 1948). This view, that M102 is a duplication of M101, was adopted by consequent publications including Owen Gingerich (Gingerich 1960), Kenneth Glyn Jones (Glyn Jones 1968 and 1991), and Mallas and Kreimer's Messier Album (Mallas & Kreimer 1978).

However, there remain some doubts et Méchain's retraction: First of all, both Méchain and Messier were very careful observers, indicated by the fact that M102 is the only possible "non-object" left in the catalog. Also, the descriptions for M101 and M102 differ notably; that for M101 reads:

March 27, 1781. 101. 13h 43m 28s, +55deg 24' 25". Diam. 7'.
Nebula without stars, very obscure and pretty large, between 6' and 7' in diameter, between the left hand of Bootes and the tail of Ursa Major. Difficult to distinguish when graticule lit.
It appears not necessarily obvious that this is the same object as M102 described above. In addition, Méchain has only published his retraction in a letter for the Berlin Jahrbuch, written more than two years after the publication of the "discovery," giving room for speculations anyway. In particular, it was never published in the Connoissance des Temps, where Messier's catalog and supplements were first printed, nor in the volumes of the Paris Academy, although Méchain himself has served as chief editor of the Connoissance from 1785 to 1792 (issues for the years 1788 to 1794). Eventually, the Messier Catalog has been reprinted unchanged well after 1783, in the Connoissance for 1787, including the entry M102.

Moreover, there is a celestial object which perfectly matches Méchain's description (Machholz 1994, Frommert 1995). However, first note that this description contains an obvious error: Omicron Bootis is about 40 degrees away and south of Iota Draconis! Therefore, it is impossible to locate any particular object from it. Very probably, (at least) one of the stars is misprinted due to a writing or printing error. Thus, J.L.E. Dreyer, in Notes and Corrections to the NGC (appendix to the IC catalog, Dreyer 1895), has speculated that Iota Draconis was mistaken for Iota Serpentis; then M102 could be situated near the position of the faint galaxy NGC 5928 at RA=15:25.9, Dec=+18:05 (2000.0). However, this proposition can be waived with great certainty because of its faintness of only 14th magnitude; the faintest objects in Messier's catalog are of about 10th magnitue.

More probably, also from the similarity of the Greek characters, appears the proposition that 'Omicron' is a misprint and should read 'Theta' Bootis, as first suggested by Admiral William Smyth in his 'Bedford Catalogue' (Smyth 1844). In this case, M102 could be a member of a small group of galaxies located in that area, about 3 degrees SW of Iota Draconis. The brightest of these galaxies is NGC 5866, a lenticular galaxy of 10th magnitude and the only one bright enough for the instruments of the two Frenchmen. It is brighter than the Messier Objects M76, M91, M98, and M108, and about equal to M97 and M99. However, Symth has proposed the fainter NGC 5879; the group also contains the famous edge-on galaxy NGC 5907 and fainter NGC 5908. NGC 5866 was first proposed for M102 in 1917, independently by Camille Flammarion, who had acquired Messier's personal copies of his catalog and observational notes (Flammarion 1917), and by Harlow Shapley and Helen Davis (Shapley & Davies 1917 and 1918).

Another fact makes NGC 5866 a good candidate for M102:
Imagine you want to find NGC 5866 with a telescope, how do you procede ? I would look for the stars Iota Draconis and Theta Bootis and then locate the 5.25 mag star GC 20332 (= HD 134190, SAO 29407) which is little more than 1 degree south and almost exactly at the same right ascension. This star is one of 5 in the rectangular region between RA/Dec limits given by the two stars and listed in Becvar's catalog of stars brighter than 6.25:

                        RA (1950.0)  Dec (1950) mag
       23 Theta Boo     14h23m48.8s  +52d04'52" 4.06
       GC 19627            30 56.9    55 37 03  5.99
       GC 19666            32 45.2    57 17 12  6.25
       GC 19742            36 40.0    54 14 19  5.52
     * GC 20332         15 04 59.9    54 44 53  5.21
       GC 20641            18 36.8    52 08 16  5.52
       12 Iota Dra      15 23 48.8    59 08 26  3.47
(NGC 5866 is at RA 15h05.1m, Dec +55d57' for 1950.0). A misestimate of a 5.25 as 6th mag star would eventually be not too far off, so that the `6th mag star' in Messier's description might be GC 20332. Then the description matches well with that visually 10th mag lenticular galaxy, as it appears probable that Méchain perhaps wanted to describe a route to his newly `discovered' object. Another, though perhaps less probable, possibility is that the star mentioned is the 6.8 mag star HD 133666 (SAO 29393) lying only 0.4 degrees NW of NGC 5866. The good match of Méchain's description with this galaxy suggests that this may have been the object he had seen in his discovery observation.

However, as Méchain has disowned the discovery, one may keep the position that due to his claim, Méchain's discovery was spurious and eventually a duplicate observation of M101 as he claimed.

Moreover, Messier had added by hand a position for M102 to his personal copy of the catalog, which both Owen Gingerich and Kenneth Glyn Jones have claimed to be erroneous "because there is no obvious object". As Messier was certainly a careful observer, it is probable that he has seen 'something', but maybe he did a reduction error again. The question arises if he found another object, either one of the candidates discussed below, a comet, or even some completely other one ? We will come back to this question later, as it suggests a very interesting possibility.

As also Don Machholz admits, it may well be that he was correct with this statement, then there remains only the puzzle of Messier's handwritten position.

For me, the author of this article, some light came into this mystery when Dr. Don Greeley communicated to me the handwritten positions Messier had added to his personal copy of the catalog printed in the Connoissance des Temps for 1784. He points out:

The positions in Messier's catalog were very faded and difficult to interpret. It was necesary to make a copy of that page so dark that the printing on the page behind it showed through. I made a slide of the page and when projected on a flat white wall showed that M102 was "14.40" in RA and "56." in Dec. M103 was much harder to see but is probably "1.20" in RA and "61." in Dec. Now they must be corrected for precesion for modern charts.
The acuracy of Messier's values is probably indicated by the rough decimals, but for the following considerations I suppose them more acurate as they really are. When precessed to modern times, there is little surprise that the position for M103 becomes RA = 1:34.6, Dec = +62.1 (2000.0), close (little more than 1 degree north and very little east) to the correct position of this cluster, which is RA = 1:33.1, Dec = +60.7. Messier's position of M102 becomes

RA = 14:46.5, Dec = +55.1 (2000.0).

In accordance to the claims of Owen Gingerich and Kenneth Glyn Jones, there is actually no striking object close to this position in the sky. It is however interesting that the position lies between the stars Iota Draconis and Theta Bootis (so that at least it is apparently validated that the "Omicron" in the description is a typo). On a closer look, one also fails with a sign error in a positional difference, as it had occured for M47, or a parallel shift due to taking a wrong reference star or object as for M91. But, and that is apparently most interesting, the position is almost exactly at the correct declination for NGC 5866 and M101, and it is almost exactly 5 degrees (20 min) west (preceding) of NGC 5866 in right ascension (is is also roughly 10 degrees east of M101, but much less acurately; the 2000.0 position of NGC 5866 is RA 15:06.5, Dec +55.7, while that of M101 is RA 14:03.2, Dec +54.3). The particular interest connected with this arises from the fact that another missing object, M48, was also measured nearly exactly 5 degrees false (in that case in declination, though). A look in the sources suggests that Messier has normally used sky charts with grids of lines every 5 degree, as e.g. his chart showing the path of the comet of 1779. Then a deviation of exactly 5 degrees may have several simple reasons: A wrongly labelled chart, an erroneous look on the neighboring label, a wrong count to an un-numbered tick, etc. One should perhaps also keep in mind that Méchain, in his letter, speculated that "M. Messier was confused due to an error in the sky-chart"!

Therefore, in the opinion of the present author, it appears probable that Charles Messier has observed NGC 5866 when he measured the position of M102 (which he could probably locate without much difficulty because of Méchain's acurate description), but due to some reductional error, plotted it exactly 5 degrees west (preceding) of its correct position.

To summarize:

The object that really deserves the designation "Messier 102" should be identical to one of the two observed by Méchain and Messier, may they be identical or not. As nobody is still alive who has witnessed them during their observation and recording, we can currently not reconstruct what they actually observed. Méchain's description gives good evidence that the object M102 could be NGC 5866, which most probably everybody would believe if he had not retracted the discovery in the letter mentioned, or if this letter had stayed forgotten. It may now depend on taste to speculate which was erroneous: The observation or the letter. Moreover, Messier has probably observed NGC 5866 and taken it for M102, but again made an error in data reduction. Once more, it is a question of taste if these facts entitle the lenticular galaxy NGC 5866 to bear the designation "M102".
At least, observers who want to go for sure that they observed all Messier objects should thus turn their telescopes to aim NGC 5866. They will be rewarded by quite an easy, beautiful object.

Messier 102 in the sources:

Sources claiming that "M102=M101":

Sources identifying M102 with NGC 5866:

Sources with other identifications:



The author is grateful to all who have encouraged him to write this article and given helpful comments (especially Tony Cecce and Guy McArthur), and in particular to Dr. Don Greeley who communicated the handwritten positions of M102 and M103.

Hartmut Frommert
Christine Kronberg

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Last Modification: March 6, 2006