Astronomy of To-day - A Popular Introduction in Non-Technical Language
by Cecil G. Dolmage
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In consequence of this lack of atmosphere, the condition of things upon the moon will be in marked contrast to what we experience upon the earth. The atmosphere here performs a double service in shielding us from the direct rays of the sun, and in bottling the heat as a glass-house does. On the moon, however, the sun beats down in the day-time with a merciless force; but its rays are reflected away from the surface as quickly as they are received, and so the cold of the lunar night is excessive. It has been calculated that the day temperature on the moon may, indeed, be as high as our boiling-point, while the night temperature may be more than twice as low as the greatest cold known in our arctic regions.

That a certain amount of solar heat is reflected to us from the moon is shown by the sharp drop in temperature which certain heat-measuring instruments record when the moon becomes obscured in a lunar eclipse. The solar heat which is thus reflected to us by the moon is, however, on the whole extremely small; more light and heat, indeed, reach us direct from the sun in half a minute than we get by reflection from the moon during the entire course of the year.

With regard to the origin of the lunar craters there has been much discussion. Some have considered them to be evidence of violent volcanic action in the dim past; others, again, as the result of the impact of meteorites upon the lunar surface, when the moon was still in a plastic condition; while a third theory holds that they were formed by the bursting of huge bubbles during the escape into space of gases from the interior. The question is, indeed, a very difficult one. Though volcanic action, such as would result in craters of the size of Ptolemaeus, is hard for us to picture, and though the lone peaks which adorn the centres of many craters have nothing reminiscent of them in our terrestrial volcanoes, nevertheless the volcanic theory seems to receive more favour than the others.

In addition to the craters there are two more features which demand notice, namely, what are known as rays and rills. The rays are long, light-coloured streaks which radiate from several of the large craters, and extend to a distance of some hundreds of miles. That they are mere markings on the surface is proved by the fact that they cast no shadows of any kind. One theory is, that they were originally great cracks which have been filled with lighter coloured material, welling up from beneath. The rills, on the other hand, are actually fissures, about a mile or so in width and about a quarter of a mile in depth.

The rays are seen to the best advantage in connection with the craters Tycho and Copernicus (see Plate XI., p. 204). In consequence of its fairly forward position on the lunar disc, and of the remarkable system of rays which issue from it like spokes from the axle of a wheel, Tycho commands especial attention. The late Rev. T.W. Webb, a famous observer, christened it, very happily, the "metropolitan crater of the moon."

A great deal of attention is, and has been, paid by certain astronomers to the moon, in the hope of finding out if any changes are actually in progress at present upon her surface. Sir William Herschel, indeed, once thought that he saw a lunar volcano in eruption, but this proved to be merely the effect of the sunlight striking the top of the crater Aristarchus, while the region around it was still in shadow—sunrise upon Aristarchus, in fact! No change of any real importance has, however, been noted, although it is suspected that some minor alterations have from time to time taken place. For instance, slight variations of tint have been noticed in certain areas of the lunar surface. Professor W.H. Pickering puts forward the conjecture that these may be caused by the growth and decay of some low form of vegetation, brought into existence by vapours of water, or carbonic acid gas, making their way out from the interior through cracks near at hand.

Again, during the last hundred years one small crater known as Linne (Linnaeus), situated in the Mare Serenitatis (Sea of Serenity), has appeared to undergo slight changes, and is even said to have been invisible for a while (see Plate X., p. 200). It is, however, believed that the changes in question may be due to the varying angles at which the sunlight falls upon the crater; for it is an understood fact that the irregularities of the moon's motion give us views of her surface which always differ slightly.

The suggestion has more than once been put forward that the surface of the moon is covered with a thick layer of ice. This is generally considered improbable, and consequently the idea has received very little support. It first originated with the late Mr. S.E. Peal, an English observer of the moon, and has recently been resuscitated by the German observer, Herr Fauth.

The most unfavourable time for telescopic study of the moon is when she is full. The sunlight is then falling directly upon her visible hemisphere, and so the mountains cast no shadows. We thus do not get that impression of hill and hollow which is so very noticeable in the other phases.

The first map of the moon was constructed by Galileo. Tobias Mayer published another in 1775; while during the nineteenth century greatly improved ones were made by Beer and Maedler, Schmidt, Neison and others. In 1903, Professor W.H. Pickering brought out a complete photographic lunar atlas; and a similar publication has recently appeared, the work of MM. Loewy and Puiseux of the Observatory of Paris.

The so-called "seas" of the moon are, as we have seen, merely dark areas, and there appears to be no proof that they were ever occupied by any liquid. They are for the most part found in the northern portion of the moon; a striking contrast to our seas and oceans, which take up so much of the southern hemisphere of the earth.

There are many erroneous ideas popularly held with regard to certain influences which the moon is supposed to exercise upon the earth. For instance, a change in the weather is widely believed to depend upon a change in the moon. But the word "change" as here used is meaningless, for the moon is continually changing her phase during the whole of her monthly round. Besides, the moon is visible over a great portion of the earth at the same moment, and certainly all the places from which it can then be seen do not get the same weather! Further, careful observations, and records extending over the past one hundred years and more, fail to show any reliable connection between the phases of the moon and the condition of the weather.

It has been stated, on very good authority, that no telescope ever shows the surface of the moon as clearly as we could see it with the naked eye were it only 240 miles distant from us.

Supposing, then, that we were able to approach our satellite, and view it without optical aid at such comparatively close quarters, it is interesting to consider what would be the smallest detail which our eye could take in. The question of the limit of what can be appreciated with the naked eye is somewhat uncertain, but it appears safe to say that at a distance of 240 miles the minutest speck visible would have to be at least some 60 yards across.

Atmosphere and liquid both wanting, the lunar surface must be the seat of an eternal calm; where no sound breaks the stillness and where change, as we know it, does not exist. The sun beats down upon the arid rocks, and inky shadows lie athwart the valleys. There is no mellowing of the harsh contrasts.

We cannot indeed absolutely affirm that Life has no place at all upon this airless and waterless globe, since we know not under what strange conditions it may manifest its presence; and our most powerful telescopes, besides, do not bring the lunar surface sufficiently near to us to disprove the existence there of even such large creatures as disport themselves upon our planet. Still, we find it hard to rid ourselves of the feeling that we are in the presence of a dead world. On she swings around the earth month after month, with one face ever turned towards us, leaving a certain mystery to hang around that hidden side, the greater part of which men can never hope to see. The rotation of the moon upon her axis—the lunar day—has become, as we have seen, equal to her revolution around the earth. An epoch may likewise eventually be reached in the history of our own planet, when the length of the terrestrial day has been so slowed down by tidal friction that it will be equal to the year. Then will the earth revolve around the central orb, with one side plunged in eternal night and the other in eternal sunshine. But such a vista need not immediately distress us. It is millions of years forward in time.

[14] Journal of the British Astronomical Association, vol. x. (1899-1900), Nos. 1 and 3.

[15] Certain of the ancient Greeks thought the markings on the moon to be merely the reflection of the seas and lands of our earth, as in a badly polished mirror.

[16] Mare Imbrium, Sinus Iridum, Lacus Somniorum.

[17] The lunar craters have, as a rule, received their names from celebrated persons, usually men of science. This system of nomenclature was originated by Riccioli, in 1651.



Having, in a previous chapter, noted the various aspects which an inferior planet presents to our view, in consequence of its orbit being nearer to the sun than the orbit of the earth, it will be well here to consider in the same way the case of a superior planet, and to mark carefully the difference.

To begin with, it should be quite evident that we cannot ever have a transit of a superior planet. The orbit of such a body being entirely outside that of the earth, the body itself can, of course, never pass between us and the sun.

A superior planet will be at its greatest distance from us when on the far side of the sun. It is said then to be in conjunction. As it comes round in its orbit it eventually passes, so to speak, at the back of us. It is then at its nearest, or in opposition, as this is technically termed, and therefore in the most favourable position for telescopic observation of its surface. Being, besides, seen by us at that time in the direction of the heavens exactly opposite to where the sun is, it will thus at midnight be high up in the south side of the sky, a further advantage to the observer.

Last of all, a superior planet cannot show crescent shapes like an interior; for whether it be on the far side of the sun, or behind us, or again to our right or left, the sunlight must needs appear to fall more or less full upon its face.


The nearest to us of the superior planets is the tiny body, Eros, which, as has been already stated, was discovered so late as the year 1898. In point of view, however, of its small size, it can hardly be considered as a true planet, and the name "planetoid" seems much more appropriate to it.

Eros was not discovered, like Uranus, in the course of telescopic examination of the heavens, nor yet, like Neptune, as the direct result of difficult calculations, but was revealed by the impress of its light upon a photographic plate, which had been exposed for some length of time to the starry sky. Since many of the more recent additions to the asteroids have been discovered in the same manner, we shall have somewhat more to say about this special employment of photography when we come to deal with those bodies later on.

The path of Eros around the sun is so very elliptical, or, to use the exact technical term, so very "eccentric," that the planetoid does not keep all the time entirely in the space between our orbit and that of Mars, which latter happens to be the next body in the order of planetary succession outwards. In portions of its journey Eros, indeed, actually goes outside the Martian orbit. The paths of the planetoid and of Mars are, however, not upon the same plane, so the bodies always pass clear of each other, and there is thus as little chance of their dashing together as there would be of trains which run across a bridge at an upper level, colliding with those which pass beneath it at a lower level.

When Eros is in opposition, it comes within about 13-1/2 million miles of our earth, and, after the moon, is therefore by a long way our nearest neighbour in space. It is, however, extremely small, not more, perhaps, than twenty miles in diameter, and is subject to marked variations in brightness, which do not appear up to the present to meet with a satisfactory explanation. But, insignificant as is this little body, it is of great importance to astronomy; for it happens to furnish the best method known of calculating the sun's distance from our earth—a method which Galle, in 1872, and Sir David Gill, in 1877, suggested that asteroids might be employed for, and which has in consequence supplanted the old one founded upon transits of Venus. The sun's distance is now an ascertained fact to within 100,000 miles, or less than half the distance of the moon.


We next come to the planet Mars. This body rotates in a period of slightly more than twenty-four hours. The inclination, or slant, of its axis is about the same as that of the earth, so that, putting aside its greater distance from the sun, the variations of season which it experiences ought to be very much like ours.

The first marking detected upon Mars was the notable one called the Syrtis Major, also known, on account of its shape, as the Hour-Glass Sea. This observation was made by the famous Huyghens in 1659; and, from the movement of the marking in question across the disc, he inferred that the planet rotated on its axis in a period of about twenty-four hours.

There appears to be very little atmosphere upon Mars, the result being that we almost always obtain a clear view of the detail on its surface. Indeed, it is only to be expected from the kinetic theory that Mars could not retain much of an atmosphere, as the force of gravity at its surface is less than one-half of what we experience upon the earth. It should here be mentioned that recent researches with the spectroscope seem to show that, whatever atmosphere there may be upon Mars, its density at the surface of the planet cannot be more than the one-fourth part of the density of the air at the surface of the earth. Professor Lowell, indeed, thinks it may be more rarefied than that upon our highest mountain-tops.

Seen with the naked eye, Mars appears of a red colour. Viewed in the telescope, its surface is found to be in general of a ruddy hue, varied here and there with darker patches of a bluish-green colour. These markings are permanent, and were supposed by the early telescopic observers to imply a distribution of the planet's surface into land and water, the ruddy portions being considered as continental areas (perhaps sandy deserts), and the bluish-green as seas. The similarity to our earth thus suggested was further heightened by the fact that broad white caps, situated at the poles, were seen to vary with the planet's seasons, diminishing greatly in extent during the Martian summer (the southern cap in 1894 even disappearing altogether), and developing again in the Martian winter.[18] Readers of Oliver Wendell Holmes will no doubt recollect that poet's striking lines:—

"The snows that glittered on the disc of Mars Have melted, and the planet's fiery orb Rolls in the crimson summer of its year."

A state of things so strongly analogous to what we experience here, naturally fired the imaginations of men, and caused them to look on Mars as a world like ours, only upon a much smaller scale. Being smaller, it was concluded to have cooled quicker, and to be now long past its prime; and its "inhabitants" were, therefore, pictured as at a later stage of development than the inhabitants of our earth.

Notwithstanding the strong temptation to assume that the whiteness of the Martian polar caps is due to fallen snow, such a solution is, however, by no means so simple as it looks. The deposition of water in the form of snow, or even of hoar frost, would at least imply that the atmosphere of Mars should now and then display traces of aqueous vapour, which it does not appear to do.[19] It has, indeed, been suggested that the whiteness may not after all be due to this cause, but to carbonic acid gas (carbon dioxide), which is known to freeze at a very low temperature. The suggestion is plainly based upon the assumption that, as Mars is so much further from the sun than we are, it would receive much less heat, and that the little thus received would be quickly radiated away into space through lack of atmosphere to bottle it in.

We now come to those well-known markings, popularly known as the "canals" of Mars, which have been the subject of so much discussion since their discovery thirty years ago.

It was, in fact, in the year 1877, when Mars was in opposition, and thus at its nearest to us, that the famous Italian astronomer, Schiaparelli, announced to the world that he had found that the ruddy areas, thought to be continents, were intersected by a network of straight dark lines. These lines, he reported, appeared in many cases to be of great length, so long, indeed, as several thousands of miles, and from about twenty to sixty miles in width. He christened the lines channels, the Italian word for which, "canali," was unfortunately translated into English as "canals." The analogy, thus accidentally suggested, gave rise to the idea that they might be actual waterways.[20]

In the winter of 1881-1882, when Mars was again in opposition, Schiaparelli further announced that he had found some of these lines doubled; that is to say, certain of them were accompanied by similar lines running exactly parallel at no great distance away. There was at first a good deal of scepticism on the subject of Schiaparelli's discoveries, but gradually other observers found themselves seeing both the lines and their doublings. We have in this a good example of a curious circumstance in astronomical observation, namely, the fact that when fine detail has once been noted by a competent observer, it is not long before other observers see the same detail with ease.

An immense amount of close attention has been paid to the planet Mars during recent years by the American observer, Professor Percival Lowell, at his famous observatory, 7300 feet above the sea, near the town of Flagstaff, Arizona, U.S.A. His observations have not, like those of most astronomers, been confined merely to "oppositions," but he has systematically kept the planet in view, so far as possible, since the year 1894.

The instrumental equipment of his observatory is of the very best, and the "seeing" at Flagstaff is described as excellent. In support of the latter statement, Mr. Lampland, of the Lowell Observatory, maintains that the faintest stars shown on charts made at the Lick Observatory with the 36-inch telescope there, are perfectly visible with the 24-inch telescope at Flagstaff.

Professor Lowell is, indeed, generally at issue with the other observers of Mars. He finds the canals extremely narrow and sharply defined, and he attributes the blurred and hazy appearance, which they have presented to other astronomers, to the unsteady and imperfect atmospheric conditions in which their observations have been made. He assigns to the thinnest a width of two or three miles, and from fifteen to twenty to the larger. Relatively to their width, however, he finds their length enormous. Many of them are 2000 miles long, while one is even as much as 3540. Such lengths as these are very great in comparison with the smallness of the planet. He considers that the canals stand in some peculiar relation to the polar cap, for they crowd together in its neighbourhood. In place, too, of ill-defined condensations, he sees sharp black spots where the canals meet and intersect, and to these he gives the name of "Oases." He further lays particular stress upon a dark band of a blue tint, which is always seen closely to surround the edges of the polar caps all the time that they are disappearing; and this he takes to be a proof that the white material is something which actually melts. Of all substances which we know, water alone, he affirms, would act in such a manner.

The question of melting at all may seem strange in a planet which is situated so far from the sun, and possesses such a rarefied atmosphere. But Professor Lowell considers that this very thinness of the atmosphere allows the direct solar rays to fall with great intensity upon the planet's surface, and that this heating effect is accentuated by the great length of the Martian summer. In consequence he concludes that, although the general climate of Mars is decidedly cold, it is above the freezing point of water.

The observations at Flagstaff appear to do away with the old idea that the darkish areas are seas, for numerous lines belonging to the so-called "canal system" are seen to traverse them. Again, there is no star-like image of the sun reflected from them, as there would be, of course, from the surface of a great sheet of water. Lastly, they are observed to vary in tone and colour with the changing Martian seasons, the blue-green changing into ochre, and later on back again into blue-green. Professor Lowell regards these areas as great tracts of vegetation, which are brought into activity as the liquid reaches them from the melting snows.

With respect to the canals, the Lowell observations further inform us that these are invisible during the Martian winter, but begin to appear in the spring when the polar cap is disappearing. Professor Lowell, therefore, inclines to the view that in the middle of the so-called canals there exist actual waterways which serve the purposes of irrigation, and that what we see is not the waterways themselves, for they are too narrow, but the fringe of vegetation which springs up along the banks as the liquid is borne through them from the melting of the polar snows. He supports this by his observation that the canals begin to appear in the neighbourhood of the polar caps, and gradually grow, as it were, in the direction of the planet's equator.

It is the idea of life on Mars which has given this planet such a fascination in the eyes of men. A great deal of nonsense has, however, been written in newspapers upon the subject, and many persons have thus been led to think that we have obtained some actual evidence of the existence of living beings upon Mars. It must be clearly understood, however, that Professor Lowell's advocacy of the existence of life upon that planet is by no means of this wild order. At the best he merely indulges in such theories as his remarkable observations naturally call forth. His views are as follows:—He considers that the planet has reached a time when "water" has become so scarce that the "inhabitants" are obliged to employ their utmost skill to make their scanty supply suffice for purposes of irrigation. The changes of tone and colour upon the Martian surface, as the irrigation produces its effects, are similar to what a telescopic observer—say, upon Venus—would notice on our earth when the harvest ripens over huge tracts of country; that is, of course, if the earth's atmosphere allowed a clear view of the terrestrial surface—a very doubtful point indeed. Professor Lowell thinks that the perfect straightness of the lines, and the geometrical manner in which they are arranged, are clear evidences of artificiality. On a globe, too, there is plainly no reason why the liquid which results from the melting of the polar caps should trend at all in the direction of the equator. Upon our earth, for instance, the transference of water, as in rivers, merely follows the slope of the ground, and nothing else. The Lowell observations show, however, that the Martian liquid is apparently carried from one pole towards the equator, and then past it to the other pole, where it once more freezes, only to melt again in due season, and to reverse the process towards and across the equator as before. Professor Lowell therefore holds, and it seems a strong point in favour of his theory, that the liquid must, in some artificial manner, as by pumping, for instance, be helped in its passage across the surface of the planet.

A number of attempts have been made to explain the doubling of the canals merely as effects of refraction or reflection; and it has even been suggested that it may arise from the telescope not being accurately focussed.

The actual doubling of the canals once having been doubted, it was an easy step to the casting of doubt on the reality of the canals themselves. The idea, indeed, was put forward that the human eye, in dealing with detail so very close to the limit of visibility, may unconsciously treat as an actual line several point-like markings which merely happen to lie in a line. In order to test this theory, experiments were carried out in 1902 by Mr. E.W. Maunder of Greenwich Observatory, and Mr. J.E. Evans of the Royal Hospital School at Greenwich, in which certain schoolboys were set to make drawings of a white disc with some faint markings upon it. The boys were placed at various distances from the disc in question; and it was found that the drawings made by those who were just too far off to see distinctly, bore out the above theory in a remarkable manner. Recently, however, the plausibility of the illusion view has been shaken by photographs of Mars taken during the opposition of 1905 by Mr. Lampland at the Lowell Observatory, in which a number of the more prominent canals come out as straight dark lines. Further still, in some photographs made there quite lately, several canals are said to appear visibly double.

Following up the idea alluded to in Chapter XVI., that the moon may be covered with a layer of ice, Mr. W.T. Lynn has recently suggested that this may be the case on Mars; and that, at certain seasons, the water may break through along definite lines, and even along lines parallel to these. This, he maintains, would account for the canals becoming gradually visible across the disc, without the necessity of Professor Lowell's "pumping" theory.

And now for the views of Professor Lowell himself with regard to the doubling of the canals. From his observations, he considers that no pairs of railway lines could apparently be laid down with greater parallelism. He draws attention to the fact that the doubling does not take place by any means in every canal; indeed, out of 400 canals seen at Flagstaff, only fifty-one—or, roughly, one-eighth—have at any time been seen double. He lays great stress upon this, which he considers points strongly against the duplication being an optical phenomenon. He finds that the distance separating pairs of canals is much less in some doubles than in others, and varies on the whole from 75 to 200 miles. According to him, the double canals appear to be confined to within 40 degrees of the equator: or, to quote his own words, they are "an equatorial feature of the planet, confined to the tropic and temperate belts." Finally, he points out that they seem to avoid the blue-green areas. But, strangely enough, Professor Lowell does not so far attempt to fit in the doubling with his body of theory. He makes the obvious remark that they may be "channels and return channels," and with that he leaves us.

The conclusions of Professor Lowell have recently been subjected to strenuous criticism by Professor W.H. Pickering and Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace. It was Professor Pickering who discovered the "oases," and who originated the idea that we did not see the so-called "canals" themselves, but only the growth of vegetation along their borders. He holds that the oases are craterlets, and that the canals are cracks which radiate from them, as do the rifts and streaks from craters upon the moon. He goes on to suggest that vapours of water, or of carbonic acid gas, escaping from the interior, find their way out through these cracks, and promote the growth of a low form of vegetation on either side of them. In support of this view he draws attention to the existence of long "steam-cracks," bordered by vegetation, in the deserts of the highly volcanic island of Hawaii. We have already seen, in an earlier chapter, how he has applied this idea to the explanation of certain changes which are suspected to be taking place upon the moon.

In dealing with the Lowell canal system, Professor Pickering points out that under such a slight atmospheric pressure as exists on Mars, the evaporation of the polar caps—supposing them to be formed of snow—would take place with such extraordinary rapidity that the resulting water could never be made to travel along open channels, but that a system of gigantic tubes or water-mains would have to be employed!

As will be gathered from his theories regarding vegetation, Professor Pickering does not deny the existence of a form of life upon Mars. But he will not hear of civilisation, or of anything even approaching it. He thinks, however, that as Mars is intermediate physically between the moon and earth, the form of life which it supports may be higher than that on the moon and lower than that on the earth.

In a small book published in the latter part of 1907, and entitled Is Mars Habitable? Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace sets himself, among other things, to combat the idea of a comparatively high temperature, such as Professor Lowell has allotted to Mars. He shows the immense service which the water-vapour in our atmosphere exercises, through keeping the solar heat from escaping from the earth's surface. He then draws attention to the fact that there is no spectroscopic evidence of water-vapour on Mars[21]; and points out that its absence is only to be expected, as Dr. George Johnstone Stoney has shown that it will escape from a body whose mass is less than one-quarter the mass of the earth. The mass of Mars is, in fact, much less than this, i.e. only one-ninth. Dr. Wallace considers, therefore, that the temperature of Mars ought to be extremely low, unless the constitution of its atmosphere is very different from ours. With regard to the latter statement, it should be mentioned that the Swedish physicist, Arrhenius, has recently shown that the carbonic acid gas in our atmosphere has an important influence upon climate. The amount of it in our air is, as we have seen, extremely small; but Arrhenius shows that, if it were doubled, the temperature would be more uniform and much higher. We thus see how futile it is, with our present knowledge, to dogmatise on the existence or non-existence of life in other celestial orbs.

As to the canals Dr. Wallace puts forward a theory of his own. He contends that after Mars had cooled to a state of solidity, a great swarm of meteorites and small asteroids fell in upon it, with the result that a thin molten layer was formed all over the planet. As this layer cooled, the imprisoned gases escaped, producing vents or craterlets; and as it attempted to contract further upon the solid interior, it split in fissures radiating from points of weakness, such, for instance, as the craterlets. And he goes on to suggest that the two tiny Martian satellites, with which we shall deal next, are the last survivors of his hypothetical swarm. Finally, with regard to the habitability of Mars, Dr. Wallace not only denies it, but asserts that the planet is "absolutely uninhabitable."

For a long time it was supposed that Mars did not possess any satellites. In 1877, however, during that famous opposition in which Schiaparelli first saw the canals, two tiny satellites were discovered at the Washington Observatory by an American astronomer, Professor Asaph Hall. These satellites are so minute, and so near to the planet, that they can only be seen with very large telescopes; and even then the bright disc of the planet must be shielded off. They have been christened Phobos and Deimos (Fear and Dread); these being the names of the two subordinate deities who, according to Homer, attended upon Mars, the god of war.

It is impossible to measure the exact sizes of these satellites, as they are too small to show any discs, but an estimate has been formed from their brightness. The diameter of Phobos was at first thought to be six miles, and that of Deimos, seven. As later estimates, however, considerably exceed this, it will, perhaps, be not far from the truth to state that they are each roughly about the size of the planetoid Eros. Phobos revolves around Mars in about 7-1/2 hours, at a distance of about only 4000 miles from the planet's surface, and Deimos in about 30 hours, at a distance of about 12,000 miles. As Mars rotates on its axis in about 24 hours, it will be seen that Phobos makes more than three revolutions while the planet is rotating once—a very interesting condition of things.

A strange foreshadowing of the discovery of the satellites of Mars will be familiar to readers of Gulliver's Travels. According to Dean Swift's hero, the astronomers on the Flying Island of Laputa had found two tiny satellites to Mars, one of which revolved around the planet in ten hours. The correctness of this guess is extraordinarily close, though at best it is, of course, nothing more than a pure coincidence.

It need not be at all surprising that much uncertainty should exist with regard to the actual condition of the surface of Mars. The circumstances in which we are able to see that planet at the best are, indeed, hardly sufficient to warrant us in propounding any hard and fast theories. One of the most experienced of living observers, the American astronomer, Professor E.E. Barnard, considers that the view we get of Mars with the best telescope may be fairly compared with our naked eye view of the moon. Since we have seen that a view with quite a small telescope entirely alters our original idea of the lunar surface, a slight magnification revealing features of whose existence we had not previously the slightest conception, it does not seem too much to say that a further improvement in optical power might entirely subvert the present notions with regard to the Martian canals. Therefore, until we get a still nearer view of these strange markings, it seems somewhat futile to theorise. The lines which we see are perhaps, indeed, a foreshortened and all too dim view of some type of formation entirely novel to us, and possibly peculiar to Mars. Differences of gravity and other conditions, such as obtain upon different planets, may perhaps produce very diverse results. The earth, the moon, and Mars differ greatly from one another in size, gravitation, and other such characteristics. Mountain-ranges so far appear typical of our globe, and ring-mountains typical of the moon. May not the so-called "canals" be merely some special formation peculiar to Mars, though quite a natural result of its particular conditions and of its past history?


We now come to that belt of small planets which are known by the name of asteroids. In the general survey of the solar system given in Chapter II., we saw how it was long ago noticed that the distances of the planetary orbits from the sun would have presented a marked appearance of orderly sequence, were it not for a gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter where no large planet was known to circulate. The suspicion thus aroused that some planet might, after all, be moving in this seemingly empty space, gave rise to the gradual discovery of a great number of small bodies; the largest of which, Ceres, is less than 500 miles in diameter. Up to the present day some 600 of these bodies have been discovered; the four leading ones, in order of size, being named Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta. All the asteroids are invisible to the naked eye, with the exception of Vesta, which, though by no means the largest, happens to be the brightest. It is, however, only just visible to the eye under favourable conditions. No trace of an atmosphere has been noted upon any of the asteroids, but such a state of things is only to be expected from the kinetic theory.

For a good many years the discoveries of asteroids were made by means of the telescope. When, in the course of searching the heavens, an object was noticed which did not appear upon any of the recognised star charts, it was kept under observation for several nights to see whether it changed its place in the sky. Since asteroids move around the sun in orbits, just as planets do, they, of course, quickly reveal themselves by their change of position against the starry background.

The year 1891 started a new era in the discovery of asteroids. It occurred to the Heidelberg observer, Dr. Max Wolf, one of the most famous of the hunters of these tiny planets, that photography might be employed in the quest with success. This photographic method, to which allusion has already been made in dealing with Eros, is an extremely simple one. If a photograph of a portion of the heavens be taken through an "equatorial"—that is, a telescope, moving by machinery, so as to keep the stars, at which it is pointed, always exactly in the field of view during their apparent movement across the sky—the images of these stars will naturally come out in the photograph as sharply defined points. If, however, there happens to be an asteroid, or other planetary body, in the same field of view, its image will come out as a short white streak; because the body has a comparatively rapid motion of its own, and will, during the period of exposure, have moved sufficiently against the background of the stars to leave a short trail, instead of a dot, upon the photographic plate. By this method Wolf himself has succeeded in discovering more than a hundred asteroids (see Plate XIII., p. 226). It was, indeed, a little streak of this kind, appearing upon a photograph taken by the astronomer Witt, at Berlin, in 1898, which first informed the world of the existence of Eros.

It has been calculated that the total mass of the asteroids must be much less than one-quarter that of the earth. They circulate as a rule within a space of some 30,000,000 miles in breadth, lying about midway between the paths of Mars and Jupiter. Two or three, however, of the most recently discovered of these small bodies have been found to pass quite close to Jupiter. The orbits of the asteroids are by no means in the one plane, that of Pallas being the most inclined to the plane of the earth's orbit. It is actually three times as much inclined as that of Eros.

Two notable theories have been put forward to account for the origin of the asteroids. The first is that of the celebrated German astronomer, Olbers, who was the discoverer of Pallas and Vesta. He suggested that they were the fragments of an exploded planet. This theory was for a time generally accepted, but has now been abandoned in consequence of certain definite objections. The most important of these objections is that, in accordance with the theory of gravitation, the orbits of such fragments would all have to pass through the place where the explosion originally occurred. But the wide area over which the asteroids are spread points rather against the notion that they all set out originally from one particular spot. Another objection is that it does not appear possible that, within a planet already formed, forces could originate sufficiently powerful to tear the body asunder.

The second theory is that for some reason a planet here failed in the making. Possibly the powerful gravitational action of the huge body of Jupiter hard by, disturbed this region so much that the matter distributed through it was never able to collect itself into a single mass.

[18] Sir William Herschel was the first to note these polar changes.

[19] Quite recently, however, Professor Lowell has announced that his observer, Mr. E.C. Slipher, finds with the spectroscope faint traces of water vapour in the Martian atmosphere.

[20] In a somewhat similar manner the term "crater," as applied to the ring-mountain formation on the moon, has evidently given a bias in favour of the volcanic theory as an explanation of that peculiar structure.

[21] Mr. Slipher's results (see note 2, page 213) were not then known.



The planets, so far, have been divided into inferior and superior. Such a division, however, refers merely to the situation of their orbits with regard to that of our earth. There is, indeed, another manner in which they are often classed, namely, according to size. On this principle they are divided into two groups; one group called the Terrestrial Planets, or those which have characteristics like our earth, and the other called the Major Planets, because they are all of very great size. The terrestrial planets are Mercury, Venus, the earth, and Mars. The major planets are the remainder, namely, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. As the earth's orbit is the boundary which separates the inferior from the superior planets, so does the asteroidal belt divide the terrestrial from the major planets. We found the division into inferior and superior useful for emphasising the marked difference in aspect which those two classes present as seen from our earth; the inferior planets showing phases like the moon when viewed in the telescope, whereas the superior planets do not. But the division into terrestrial and major planets is the more far-reaching classification of the two, for it includes the whole number of planets, whereas the other arrangement necessarily excludes the earth. The members of each of these classes have many definite characteristics in common. The terrestrial planets are all of them relatively small in size, comparatively near together, and have few or no satellites. They are, moreover, rather dense in structure. The major planets, on the other hand, are huge bodies, circulating at great distances from each other, and are, as a rule, provided with a number of satellites. With respect to structure, they may be fairly described as being loosely put together. Further, the markings on the surfaces of the terrestrial planets are permanent, whereas those on the major planets are continually shifting.


Jupiter is the greatest of the major planets. It has been justly called the "Giant" planet, for both in volume and in mass it exceeds all the other planets put together. When seen through the telescope it exhibits a surface plentifully covered with markings, the most remarkable being a series of broad parallel belts. The chief belt lies in the central parts of the planet, and is at present about 10,000 miles wide. It is bounded on either side by a reddish brown belt of about the same width. Bright spots also appear upon the surface of the planet, last for a while, and then disappear. The most notable of the latter is one known as the "Great Red Spot." This is situated a little beneath the southern red belt, and appeared for the first time about thirty years ago. It has undergone a good many changes in colour and brightness, and is still faintly visible. This spot is the most permanent marking which has yet been seen upon Jupiter. In general, the markings change so often that the surface which we see is evidently not solid, but of a fleeting nature akin to cloud (see Plate XIV., p. 230).

Observations of Jupiter's markings show that on an average the planet rotates on its axis in a period of about 9 hours 54 minutes. The mention here of an average with reference to the rotation will, no doubt, recall to the reader's mind the similar case of the sun, the different portions of which rotate with different velocities. The parts of Jupiter which move quickest take 9 hours 50 minutes to go round, while those which move slowest take 9 hours 57 minutes. The middle portions rotate the fastest, a phenomenon which the reader will recollect was also the case with regard to the sun.

Jupiter is a very loosely packed body. Its density is on an average only about 1-1/2 times that of water, or about one-fourth the density of the earth; but its bulk is so great that the gravitation at that surface which we see is about 2-1/2 times what it is on the surface of the earth. In accordance, therefore, with the kinetic theory, we may expect the planet to retain an extensive layer of gases around it; and this is confirmed by the spectroscope, which gives evidence of the presence of a dense atmosphere.

All things considered, it may be safely inferred that the interior of Jupiter is very hot, and that what we call its surface is not the actual body of the planet, but a voluminous layer of clouds and vapours driven upwards from the heated mass underneath. The planet was indeed formerly thought to be self-luminous; but this can hardly be the case, for those portions of the surface which happen to lie at any moment in the shadows cast by the satellites appear to be quite black. Again, when a satellite passes into the great shadow cast by the planet it becomes entirely invisible, which would not be the case did the planet emit any perceptible light of its own.

In its revolutions around the sun, Jupiter is attended, so far as we know, by seven[22] satellites. Four of these were among the first celestial objects which Galileo discovered with his "optick tube," and he named them the "Medicean Stars" in honour of his patron, Cosmo de Medici. Being comparatively large bodies they might indeed just be seen with the naked eye, were it not for the overpowering glare of the planet.

It was only in quite recent times, namely, in 1892, that a fifth satellite was added to the system of Jupiter. This body, discovered by Professor E.E. Barnard, is very small. It circulates nearer to the planet than the innermost of Galileo's moons; and, on account of the glare, is a most difficult object to obtain a glimpse of, even in the best of telescopes. In December 1904 and January 1905 respectively, two more moons were added to the system, these being found by photography, by the American astronomer, Professor C.D. Perrine. Both the bodies in question revolve at a greater distance from the planet than the outermost of the older known satellites.

Galileo's moons, though the largest bodies of Jupiter's satellite system, are, as we have already pointed out, very small indeed when compared with the planet itself. The diameters of two of them, Europa and Io, are, however, about the same as that of our moon, while those of the other two, Callisto and Ganymede, are more than half as large again. The recently discovered satellites are, on the other hand, insignificant; that found by Barnard, for example, being only about 100 miles in diameter.

Of the four original satellites Io is the nearest to Jupiter, and, seen from the planet, it would show a disc somewhat larger than that of our moon. The others would appear somewhat smaller. However, on account of the great distance of the sun, the entire light reflected to Jupiter by all the satellites should be very much less than what we get from our moon.

Barnard's satellite circles around Jupiter at a distance less than our moon is from us, and in a period of about 12 hours. Galileo's four satellites revolve in periods of about 2, 3-1/2, 7, and 16-1/2 days respectively, at distances lying roughly between a quarter of a million and one million miles. Perrine's two satellites are at a distance of about seven million miles, and take about nine months to complete their revolutions.

The larger satellites, when viewed in the telescope, exhibit certain defined markings; but the bodies are so far away from us, that only those details which are of great extent can be seen. The satellite Io, according to Professor Barnard, shows a darkish disc, with a broad white belt across its middle regions. Mr. Douglass, one of the observers at the Lowell Observatory, has noted upon Ganymede a number of markings somewhat resembling those seen on Mars, and he concludes, from their movement, that this satellite rotates on its axis in about seven days. Professor Barnard, on the other hand, does not corroborate this, though he claims to have discovered bright polar caps on both Ganymede and Callisto.

In an earlier chapter we dealt at length with eclipses, occultations, and transits, and endeavoured to make clear the distinction between them. The system of Jupiter's satellites furnishes excellent examples of all these phenomena. The planet casts a very extensive shadow, and the satellites are constantly undergoing obscuration by passing through it. Such occurrences are plainly comparable to our lunar eclipses. Again, the satellites may, at one time, be occulted by the huge disc of the planet, and at another time seen in transit over its face. A fourth phenomenon is what is known as an eclipse of the planet by a satellite, which is the exact equivalent of what we style on the earth an eclipse of the sun. In this last case the shadow, cast by the satellite, appears as a round black spot in movement across the planet's surface.

In the passages of these attendant bodies behind the planet, into its shadow, or across its face, respectively, it occasionally happens that Galileo's four satellites all disappear from view, and the planet is then seen for a while in the unusual condition of being apparently without its customary attendants. An instance of this phenomenon took place on the 3rd of October 1907. On that occasion, the satellites known as I. and III. (i.e. Io and Ganymede) were eclipsed, that is to say, obscured by passing into the planet's shadow; Satellite IV. (Callisto) was occulted by the planet's disc; while Satellite II. (Europa), being at the same moment in transit across the planet's face, was invisible against that brilliant background. A number of instances of this kind of occurrence are on record. Galileo, for example, noted one on the 15th of March 1611, while Herschel observed another on the 23rd of May 1802.

It was indirectly to Jupiter's satellites that the world was first indebted for its knowledge of the velocity of light. When the periods of revolution of the satellites were originally determined, Jupiter happened, at the time, to be at his nearest to us. From the periods thus found tables were made for the prediction of the moments at which the eclipses and other phenomena of the satellites should take place. As Jupiter, in the course of his orbit, drew further away from the earth, it was noticed that the disappearances of the satellites into the shadow of the planet occurred regularly later than the time predicted. In the year 1675, Roemer, a Danish astronomer, inferred from this, not that the predictions were faulty, but that light did not travel instantaneously. It appeared, in fact, to take longer to reach us, the greater the distance it had to traverse. Thus, when the planet was far from the earth, the last ray given out by the satellite, before its passage into the shadow, took a longer time to cross the intervening space, than when the planet was near. Modern experiments in physics have quite confirmed this, and have proved for us that light does not travel across space in the twinkling of an eye, as might hastily be supposed, but actually moves, as has been already stated, at the rate of about 186,000 miles per second.


Seen in the telescope the planet Saturn is a wonderful and very beautiful object. It is distinguished from all the other planets, in fact from all known celestial bodies, through being girt around its equator by what looks like a broad, flat ring of exceeding thinness. This, however, upon closer examination, is found to be actually composed of three concentric rings. The outermost of these is nearly of the same brightness as the body of the planet itself. The ring which comes immediately within it is also bright, and is separated from the outer one all the way round by a relatively narrow space, known as "Cassini's division," because it was discovered by the celebrated French astronomer, J.D. Cassini, in the year 1675. Inside the second ring, and merging insensibly into it, is a third one, known as the "crape ring," because it is darker in hue than the others and partly transparent, the body of Saturn being visible through it. The inner boundary of this third and last ring does not adjoin the planet, but is everywhere separated from it by a definite space. This ring was discovered independently[23] in 1850 by Bond in America and Dawes in England.

As distinguished from the crape ring, the bright rings must have a considerable closeness of texture; for the shadow of the planet may be seen projected upon them, and their shadows in turn projected upon the surface of the planet (see Plate XV., p. 236).

According to Professor Barnard, the entire breadth of the ring system, that is to say, from one side to the other of the outer ring, is 172,310 miles, or somewhat more than double the planet's diameter.

In the varying views which we get of Saturn, the system of the rings is presented to us at very different angles. Sometimes we are enabled to gaze upon its broad expanse; at other times, however, its thin edge is turned exactly towards us, an occurrence which takes place after intervals of about fifteen years. When this happened in 1892 the rings are said to have disappeared entirely from view in the great Lick telescope. We thus get an idea of their small degree of thickness, which would appear to be only about 50 miles. The last time the system of rings was exactly edgewise to the earth was on the 3rd of October 1907.

The question of the composition of these rings has given rise to a good deal of speculation. It was formerly supposed that they were either solid or liquid, but in 1857 it was proved by Clerk Maxwell that a structure of this kind would not be able to stand. He showed, however, that they could be fully explained by supposing them to consist of an immense number of separate solid particles, or, as one might otherwise put it, extremely small satellites, circling in dense swarms around the middle portions of the planet. It is therefore believed that we have here the materials ready for the formation of a satellite or satellites; but that the powerful gravitative action, arising through the planet's being so near at hand, is too great ever to allow these materials to aggregate themselves into a solid mass. There is, as a matter of fact, a minimum distance from the body of any planet within which it can be shown that a satellite will be unable to form on account of gravitational stress. This is known as "Roche's limit," from the name of a French astronomer who specially investigated the question.

There thus appears to be a certain degree of analogy between Saturn's rings and the asteroids. Empty spaces, too, exist in the asteroidal zone, the relative position of one of which bears a striking resemblance to that of "Cassini's division." It is suggested, indeed, that this division had its origin in gravitational disturbances produced by the attraction of the larger satellites, just as the empty spaces in the asteroidal zone are supposed to be the result of perturbations caused by the Giant Planet hard by.

It has long been understood that the system of the rings must be rotating around Saturn, for if they were not in motion his intense gravitational attraction would quickly tear them in pieces. This was at length proved to be the fact by the late Professor Keeler, Director of the Lick Observatory, who from spectroscopic observations found that those portions of the rings situated near to the planet rotated faster than those farther from it. This directly supports the view that the rings are composed of satellites; for, as we have already seen, the nearer a satellite is to its primary the faster it will revolve. On the other hand, were the rings solid, their outer portions would move the fastest; as we have seen takes place in the body of the earth, for example. The mass of the ring system, however, must be exceedingly small, for it does not appear to produce any disturbances in the movements of Saturn's satellites. From the kinetic theory, therefore, one would not expect to find any atmosphere on the rings, and the absence of it is duly shown by spectroscopic observations.

The diameter of Saturn, roughly speaking, is about one-fifth less than that of Jupiter. The planet is very flattened at the poles, this flattening being quite noticeable in a good telescope. For instance, the diameter across the equator is about 76,470 miles, while from pole to pole it is much less, namely, 69,770.

The surface of Saturn bears a strong resemblance to that of Jupiter. Its markings, though not so well defined, are of the same belt-like description; and from observation of them it appears that the planet rotates on an average in a little over ten hours. The rotation is in fact of the same peculiar kind as that of the sun and Jupiter; but the difference of speed at which the various portions of Saturn go round are even more marked than in the case of the Giant Planet. The density of Saturn is less than that of Jupiter; so that it must be largely in a condition of vapour, and in all probability at a still earlier stage of planetary evolution.

Up to the present we know of as many as ten satellites circling around Saturn, which is more than any other planet of the solar system can lay claim to. Two of these, however, are very recent discoveries; one, Phoebe, having been found by photography in August 1898, and the other, Themis, in 1904, also by the same means. For both of these we are indebted to Professor W.H. Pickering. Themis is said to be the faintest object in the solar system. It cannot be seen, even with the largest telescope in existence; a fact which should hardly fail to impress upon one the great advantage the photographic plate possesses in these researches over the human eye.

The most important of the whole Saturnian family of satellites are the two known as Titan and Japetus. These were discovered respectively by Huyghens in 1655 and by Cassini in 1671. Japetus is about the same size as our moon; while the diameter of Titan, the largest of the satellites, is about half as much again. Titan takes about sixteen days to revolve around Saturn, while Japetus takes more than two months and a half. The former is about three-quarters of a million miles distant from the planet, and the latter about two and a quarter millions. To Sir William Herschel we are indebted for the discovery of two more satellites, one of which he found on the evening that he used his celebrated 40-foot telescope for the first time. The ninth satellite, Phoebe, one of the two discovered by Professor Pickering, is perhaps the most remarkable body in the solar system, for all the other known members of that system perform their revolutions in one fixed direction, whereas this satellite revolves in the contrary direction.

In consequence of the great distance of Saturn, the sun, as seen from the planet, would appear so small that it would scarcely show any disc. The planet, indeed, only receives from the sun about one-ninetieth of the heat and light which the earth receives. Owing to this diminished intensity of illumination, the combined light reflected to Saturn by the whole of its satellites must be very small.

With the sole exception of Jupiter, not one of the planets circulating nearer to the sun could be seen from Saturn, as they would be entirely lost in the solar glare. For an observer upon Saturn, Jupiter would, therefore, fill much the same position as Venus does for us, regularly displaying phases and being alternately a morning and an evening star.

It is rather interesting to consider the appearances which would be produced in our skies were the earth embellished with a system of rings similar to those of Saturn. In consequence of the curving of the terrestrial surface, they would not be seen at all from within the Arctic or Antarctic circles, as they would be always below the horizon. From the equator they would be continually seen edgewise, and so would appear merely as line of light stretching right across the heaven and passing through the zenith. But the dwellers in the remaining regions would find them very objectionable, for they would cut off the light of the sun during lengthy periods of time.

Saturn was a sore puzzle to the early telescopic observers. They did not for a long time grasp the fact that it was surrounded by a ring—so slow is the human mind to seek for explanations out of the ordinary course of things. The protrusions of the ring on either side of the planet, at first looked to Galileo like two minor globes placed on opposite sides of it, and slightly overlapping the disc. He therefore informed Kepler that "Saturn consists of three stars in contact with one another." Yet he was genuinely puzzled by the fact that the two attendant bodies (as he thought them) always retained the same position with regard to the planet's disc, and did not appear to revolve around it, nor to be in any wise shifted as a consequence of the movements of our earth.

About a year and a half elapsed before he again examined Saturn; and, if he was previously puzzled, he was now thoroughly amazed. It happened just then to be one of those periods when the ring is edgewise towards the earth, and of course he only saw a round disc like that of Jupiter. What, indeed, had become of the attendant orbs? Was some demon mocking him? Had Saturn devoured his own children? He was, however, fated to be still more puzzled, for soon the minor orbs reappeared, and, becoming larger and larger as time went on, they ended by losing their globular appearance and became like two pairs of arms clasping the planet from each side! (see Plate XVI., p. 242).

Galileo went to his grave with the riddle still unsolved, and it remained for the famous Dutch astronomer, Huyghens, to clear up the matter. It was, however, some little time before he hit upon the real explanation. Having noticed that there were dark spaces between the strange appendages and the body of the planet, he imagined Saturn to be a globe fitted with handles at each side; "ansae" these came to be called, from the Latin ansa, which means a handle. At length, in the year 1656, he solved the problem, and this he did by means of that 123-foot tubeless telescope, of which mention has already been made. The ring happened then to be at its edgewise period, and a careful study of the behaviour of the ansae when disappearing and reappearing soon revealed to Huyghens the true explanation.


We have already explained (in Chapter II.) the circumstances in which both Uranus and Neptune were discovered. It should, however, be added that after the discovery of Uranus, that planet was found to have been already noted upon several occasions by different observers, but always without the least suspicion that it was other than a mere faint star. Again, with reference to the discovery of Neptune, it may here be mentioned that the apparent amount by which that planet had pulled Uranus out of its place upon the starry background was exceedingly small—so small, indeed, that no eye could have detected it without the aid of a telescope!

Of the two predictions of the place of Neptune in the sky, that of Le Verrier was the nearer. Indeed, the position calculated by Adams was more than twice as far out. But Adams was by a long way the first in the field with his results, and only for unfortunate delays the prize would certainly have fallen to him. For instance, there was no star-map at Cambridge, and Professor Challis, the director of the observatory there, was in consequence obliged to make a laborious examination of the stars in the suspected region. On the other hand, all that Galle had to do was to compare that part of the sky where Le Verrier told him to look with the Berlin star-chart which he had by him. This he did on September 23, 1846, with the result that he quickly noted an eighth magnitude star which did not figure in that chart. By the next night this star had altered its position in the sky, thus disclosing the fact that it was really a planet.

Six days later Professor Challis succeeded in finding the planet, but of course he was now too late. On reviewing his labours he ascertained that he had actually noted down its place early in August, and had he only been able to sift his observations as he made them, the discovery would have been made then.

Later on it was found that Neptune had only just missed being discovered about fifty years earlier. In certain observations made during 1795, the famous French astronomer, Lalande, found that a star, which he had mapped in a certain position on the 8th of May of that year, was in a different position two days later. The idea of a planet does not appear to have entered his mind, and he merely treated the first observation as an error!

The reader will, no doubt, recollect how the discovery of the asteroids was due in effect to an apparent break in the seemingly regular sequence of the planetary orbits outwards from the sun. This curious sequence of relative distances is usually known as "Bode's Law," because it was first brought into general notice by an astronomer of that name. It had, however, previously been investigated mathematically by Titius in 1772. Long before this, indeed, the unnecessarily wide space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter had attracted the attention of the great Kepler to such a degree, that he predicted that a planet would some day be found to fill the void. Notwithstanding the service which the so-called Law of Bode has indirectly rendered to astronomy, it has strangely enough been found after all not to rest upon any scientific foundation. It will not account for the distance from the sun of the orbit of Neptune, and the very sequence seems on the whole to be in the nature of a mere coincidence.

Neptune is invisible to the naked eye; Uranus is just at the limit of visibility. Both planets are, however, so far from us that we can get but the poorest knowledge of their condition and surroundings. Uranus, up to the present, is known to be attended by four satellites, and Neptune by one. The planets themselves are about equal in size; their diameters, roughly speaking, being about one-half that of Saturn. Some markings have, indeed, been seen upon the disc of Uranus, but they are very indistinct and fleeting. From observation of them, it is assumed that the planet rotates on its axis in a period of some ten to twelve hours. No definite markings have as yet been seen upon Neptune, which body is described by several observers as resembling a faint planetary nebula.

With regard to their physical condition, the most that can be said about these two planets is that they are probably in much the same vaporous state as Jupiter and Saturn. On account of their great distance from the sun they can receive but little solar heat and light. Seen from Neptune, in fact, the sun would appear only about the size of Venus at her best, though of a brightness sufficiently intense to illumine the Neptunian landscape with about seven hundred times our full moonlight.

[22] Mr. P. Melotte, of Greenwich Observatory, while examining a photograph taken there on February 28, 1908, discovered upon it a very faint object which it is firmly believed will prove to be an eighth satellite of Jupiter. This object was afterwards found on plates exposed as far back as January 27. It has since been photographed several times at Greenwich, and also at Heidelberg (by Dr. Max Wolf) and at the Lick Observatory. Its movement is probably retrograde, like that of Phoebe (p. 240).

[23] In the history of astronomy two salient points stand out.

The first of these is the number of "independent" discoveries which have taken place; such, for instance, as in the cases of Le Verrier and Adams with regard to Neptune, and of Lockyer and Janssen in the matter of the spectroscopic method of observing solar prominences.

The other is the great amount of "anticipation." Copernicus, as we have seen, was anticipated by the Greeks; Kepler was not actually the first who thought of elliptic orbits; others before Newton had imagined an attractive force.

Both these points furnish much food for thought!



The reader has, no doubt, been struck by the marked uniformity which exists among those members of the solar system with which we have dealt up to the present. The sun, the planets, and their satellites are all what we call solid bodies. The planets move around the sun, and the satellites around the planets, in orbits which, though strictly speaking, ellipses, are yet not in any instance of a very oval form. Two results naturally follow from these considerations. Firstly, the bodies in question hide the light coming to us from those further off, when they pass in front of them. Secondly, the planets never get so far from the sun that we lose sight of them altogether.

With the objects known as Comets it is, however, quite the contrary. These objects do not conform to our notions of solidity. They are so transparent that they can pass across the smallest star without dimming its light in the slightest degree. Again, they are only visible to us during a portion of their orbits. A comet may be briefly described as an illuminated filmy-looking object, made up usually of three portions—a head, a nucleus, or brighter central portion within this head, and a tail. The heads of comets vary greatly in size; some, indeed, appear quite small, like stars, while others look even as large as the moon. Occasionally the nucleus is wanting, and sometimes the tail also.

These mysterious visitors to our skies come up into view out of the immensities beyond, move towards the sun at a rapidly increasing speed, and, having gone around it, dash away again into the depths of space. As a comet approaches the sun, its body appears to grow smaller and smaller, while, at the same time, it gradually throws out behind it an appendage like a tail. As the comet moves round the central orb this tail is always directed away from the sun; and when it departs again into space the tail goes in advance. As the comet's distance from the sun increases, the tail gradually shrinks away and the head once more grows in size (see Fig. 18). In consequence of these changes, and of the fact that we lose sight of comets comparatively quickly, one is much inclined to wonder what further changes may take place after the bodies have passed beyond our ken.

The orbits of comets are, as we have seen, very elliptic. In some instances this ellipticity is so great as to take the bodies out into space to nearly six times the distance of Neptune from the sun. For a long time, indeed, it was considered that comets were of two kinds, namely, those which actually belonged to the solar system, and those which were merely visitors to it for the first and only time—rushing in from the depths of space, rapidly circuiting the sun, and finally dashing away into space again, never to return. On the contrary, nowadays, astronomers are generally inclined to regard comets as permanent members of the solar system.

The difficulty, however, of deciding absolutely whether the orbits of comets are really always closed curves, that is to say, curves which must sooner or later bring the bodies back again towards the sun, is, indeed, very great. Comets, in the first place, are always so diffuse, that it is impossible to determine their exact position, or, rather, the exact position of that important point within them, known as the centre of gravity. Secondly, that stretch of its orbit along which we can follow a comet, is such a very small portion of the whole path, that the slightest errors of observation which we make will result in considerably altering our estimate of the actual shape of the orbit.

Comets have been described as so transparent that they can pass across the sky without dimming the lustre of the smallest stars, which the thinnest fog or mist would do. This is, indeed, true of every portion of a comet except the nucleus, which is, as its name implies, the densest part. And yet, in contrast to this ghostlike character, is the strange fact that when comets are of a certain brightness they may actually be seen in full daylight.

As might be gathered from their extreme tenuity, comets are so exceedingly small in mass that they do not appear to exert any gravitational attraction upon the other bodies of our system. It is, indeed, a known fact that in the year 1886 a comet passed right amidst the satellites of Jupiter without disturbing them in the slightest degree. The attraction of the planet, on the other hand, so altered the comet's orbit, as to cause it to revolve around the sun in a period of seven years, instead of twenty-seven, as had previously been the case. Also, in 1779, the comet known as Lexell's passed quite close to Jupiter, and its orbit was so changed by that planet's attraction that it has never been seen since. The density of comets must, as a rule, be very much less than the one-thousandth part of that of the air at the surface of our globe; for, if the density of the comet were even so small as this, its mass would not be inappreciable.

If comets are really undoubted members of the solar system, the circumstances in which they were evolved must have been different from those which produced the planets and satellites. The axial rotations of both the latter, and also their revolutions, take place in one certain direction;[24] their orbits, too, are ellipses which do not differ much from circles, and which, furthermore, are situated fairly in the one plane. Comets, on the other hand, do not necessarily travel round the sun in the same fixed direction as the planets. Their orbits, besides, are exceedingly elliptic; and, far from keeping to one plane, or even near it, they approach the sun from all directions.

Broadly speaking, comets may be divided into two distinct classes, or "families." In the first class, the same orbit appears to be shared in common by a series of comets which travel along it, one following the other. The comets which appeared in the years 1668, 1843, 1880, 1882, and 1887 are instances of a number of different bodies pursuing the same path around the sun. The members of a comet family of this kind are observed to have similar characteristics. The idea is that such comets are merely portions of one much larger cometary body, which became broken up by the gravitational action of other bodies in the system, or through violent encounter with the sun's surroundings.

The second class is composed of comets which are supposed to have been seized by the gravitative action of certain planets, and thus forced to revolve in short ellipses around the sun, well within the limits of the solar system. These comets are, in consequence, spoken of as "captures." They move around the sun in the same direction as the planets do. Jupiter has a fairly large comet family of this kind attached to him. As a result of his overpowering gravitation, it is imagined that during the ages he must have attracted a large number of these bodies on his own account, and, perhaps, have robbed other planets of their captures. His family at present numbers about thirty. Of the other planets, so far as we know, Saturn possesses a comet family of two, Uranus three, and Neptune six. There are, indeed, a few comets which appear as if under the influence of some force situated outside the known bounds of the solar system, a circumstance which goes to strengthen the idea that other planets may revolve beyond the orbit of Neptune. The terrestrial planets, on the other hand, cannot have comet families; because the enormous gravitative action of the sun in their vicinity entirely overpowers the attractive force which they exert upon those comets which pass close to them. Besides this, a comet, when in the inner regions of the solar system, moves with such rapidity, that the gravitational pull of the planets there situated is not powerful enough to deflect it to any extent. It must not be presumed, however, that a comet once captured should always remain a prisoner. Further disturbing causes might unsettle its newly acquired orbit, and send it out again into the celestial spaces.

With regard to the matter of which comets are composed, the spectroscope shows the presence in them of hydrocarbon compounds (a notable characteristic of these bodies), and at times, also, of sodium and iron. Some of the light which we get from comets is, however, merely reflected sunlight.

The fact that the tails of comets are always directed away from the sun, has given rise to the idea that this is caused by some repelling action emanating from the sun itself, which is continually driving off the smallest particles. Two leading theories have been formulated to account for the tails themselves upon the above assumption. One of these, first suggested by Olbers in 1812, and now associated with the name of the Russian astronomer, the late Professor Bredikhine, who carefully worked it out, presumes an electrical action emanating from the sun; the other, that of Arrhenius, supposes a pressure exerted by the solar light in its radiation outwards into space. It is possible, indeed, that repelling forces of both these kinds may be at work together. Minute particles are probably being continually produced by friction and collisions among the more solid parts in the heads of comets. Supposing that such particles are driven off altogether, one may therefore assume that the so-called captured comets are disintegrating at a comparatively rapid rate. Kepler long ago maintained that "comets die," and this actually appears to be the case. The ordinary periodic ones, such, for instance, as Encke's Comet, are very faint, and becoming fainter at each return. Certain of these comets have, indeed, failed altogether to reappear. It is notable that the members of Jupiter's comet family are not very conspicuous objects. They have small tails, and even in some cases have none at all. The family, too, does not contain many members, and yet one cannot but suppose that Jupiter, on account of his great mass, has had many opportunities for making captures adown the ages.

Of the two theories to which allusion has above been made, that of Bredikhine has been worked out so carefully, and with such a show of plausibility, that it here calls for a detailed description. It appears besides to explain the phenomena of comets' tails so much more satisfactorily than that of Arrhenius, that astronomers are inclined to accept it the more readily of the two. According to Bredikhine's theory the electrical repulsive force, which he assumes for the purposes of his argument, will drive the minutest particles of the comet in a direction away from the sun much more readily than the gravitative action of that body will pull them towards it. This may be compared to the ease with which fine dust may be blown upwards, although the earth's gravitation is acting upon it all the time.

The researches of Bredikhine, which began seriously with his investigation of Coggia's Comet of 1874, led him to classify the tails of comets in three types. Presuming that the repulsive force emanating from the sun did not vary, he came to the conclusion that the different forms assumed by cometary tails must be ascribed to the special action of this force upon the various elements which happen to be present in the comet. The tails which he classes as of the first type, are those which are long and straight and point directly away from the sun. Examples of such tails are found in the comets of 1811, 1843, and 1861. Tails of this kind, he thinks, are in all probability formed of hydrogen. His second type comprises those which are pointed away from the sun, but at the same time are considerably curved, as was seen in the comets of Donati and Coggia. These tails are formed of hydrocarbon gas. The third type of tail is short, brush-like, and strongly bent, and is formed of the vapour of iron, mixed with that of sodium and other elements. It should, however, be noted that comets have occasionally been seen which possess several tails of these various types.

We will now touch upon a few of the best known comets of modern times.

The comet of 1680 was the first whose orbit was calculated according to the laws of gravitation. This was accomplished by Newton, and he found that the comet in question completed its journey round the sun in a period of about 600 years.

In 1682 there appeared a great comet, which has become famous under the name of Halley's Comet, in consequence of the profound investigations made into its motion by the great astronomer, Edmund Halley. He fixed its period of revolution around the sun at about seventy-five years, and predicted that it would reappear in the early part of 1759. He did not, however, live to see this fulfilled, but the comet duly returned—the first body of the kind to verify such a prediction—and was detected on Christmas Day, 1758, by George Palitzch, an amateur observer living near Dresden. Halley also investigated the past history of the comet, and traced it back to the year 1456. The orbit of Halley's comet passes out slightly beyond the orbit of Neptune. At its last visit in 1835, this comet passed comparatively close to us, namely, within five million miles of the earth. According to the calculations of Messrs P.H. Cowell and A.C.D. Crommelin of Greenwich Observatory, its next return will be in the spring of 1910; the nearest approach to the earth taking place about May 12.

On the 26th of March, 1811, a great comet appeared, which remained visible for nearly a year and a half. It was a magnificent object; the tail being about 100 millions of miles in length, and the head about 127,000 miles in diameter. A detailed study which he gave to this comet prompted Olbers to put forward that theory of electrical repulsion which, as we have seen, has since been so carefully worked out by Bredikhine. Olbers had noticed that the particles expelled from the head appeared to travel to the end of the tail in about eleven minutes, thus showing a velocity per second very similar to that of light.

The discovery in 1819 of the comet known as Encke's, because its orbit was determined by an astronomer of that name, drew attention for the first time to Jupiter's comet family, and, indeed, to short-period comets in general. This comet revolves around the sun in the shortest known period of any of these bodies, namely, 3-1/3 years. Encke predicted that it would return in 1822. This duly occurred, the comet passing at its nearest to the sun within three hours of the time indicated; being thus the second instance of the fulfilment of a prediction of the kind. A certain degree of irregularity which Encke's Comet displays in the dates of its returns to the sun, has been supposed to indicate that it passes in the course of its orbit through some retarding medium, but no definite conclusions have so far been arrived at in this matter.

A comet, which appeared in 1826, goes by the name of Biela's Comet, because of its discovery by an Austrian military officer, Wilhelm von Biela. This comet was found to have a period of between six and seven years. Certain calculations made by Olbers showed that, at its return in 1832, it would pass through the earth's orbit. The announcement of this gave rise to a panic; for people did not wait to inquire whether the earth would be anywhere near that part of its orbit when the comet passed. The panic, however, subsided when the French astronomer, Arago, showed that at the moment in question the earth would be some 50 millions of miles away from the point indicated!

In 1846, shortly after one of its returns, Biela's Comet divided into two portions. At its next appearance (1852) these portions had separated to a distance of about 1-1/2 millions of miles from each other. This comet, or rather its constituents, have never since been seen.

Perhaps the most remarkable comet of recent times was that of 1858, known as Donati's, it having been discovered at Florence by the Italian astronomer, G.B. Donati. This comet, a magnificent object, was visible for more than three months with the naked eye. Its tail was then 54 millions of miles in length. It was found to revolve around the sun in a period of over 2000 years, and to go out in its journey to about 5-1/2 times the distance of Neptune. Its motion is retrograde, that is to say, in the contrary direction to the usual movement in the solar system. A number of beautiful drawings of Donati's Comet were made by the American astronomer, G.P. Bond. One of the best of these is reproduced on Plate XVII., p. 256.

In 1861 there appeared a great comet. On the 30th of June of that year the earth and moon actually passed through its tail; but no effects were noticed, other than a peculiar luminosity in the sky.

In the year 1881 there appeared another large comet, known as Tebbutt's Comet, from the name of its discoverer. This was the first comet of which a satisfactory photograph was obtained. The photograph in question was taken by the late M. Janssen.

The comet of 1882 was of vast size and brilliance. It approached so close to the sun that it passed through some 100,000 miles of the solar corona. Though its orbit was not found to have been altered by this experience, its nucleus displayed signs of breaking up. Some very fine photographs of this comet were obtained at the Cape of Good Hope by Mr. (now Sir David) Gill.

The comet of 1889 was followed with the telescope nearly up to the orbit of Saturn, which seems to be the greatest distance at which a comet has ever been seen.

The first discovery of a comet by photographic means[25] was made by Professor Barnard in 1892; and, since then, photography has been employed with marked success in the detection of small periodic comets.

The best comet seen in the Northern hemisphere since that of 1882, appears to have been Daniel's Comet of 1907 (see Plate XVIII., p. 258). This comet was discovered on June 9, 1907, by Mr. Z. Daniel, at Princeton Observatory, New Jersey, U.S.A. It became visible to the naked eye about mid-July of that year, and reached its greatest brilliancy about the end of August. It did not, however, attract much popular attention, as its position in the sky allowed it to be seen only just before dawn.

[24] With the exception, of course, of such an anomaly as the retrograde motion of the ninth satellite of Saturn.

[25] If we except the case of the comet which was photographed near the solar corona in the eclipse of 1882.



If eclipses were a cause of terror in past ages, comets appear to have been doubly so. Their much longer continuance in the sight of men had no doubt something to say to this, and also the fact that they arrived without warning; it not being then possible to give even a rough prediction of their return, as in the case of eclipses. As both these phenomena were occasional, and out of the ordinary course of things, they drew exceptional attention as unusual events always do; for it must be allowed that quite as wonderful things exist, but they pass unnoticed merely because men have grown accustomed to them.

For some reason the ancients elected to class comets along with meteors, the aurora borealis, and other phenomena of the atmosphere, rather than with the planets and the bodies of the spaces beyond. The sudden appearance of these objects led them to be regarded as signs sent by the gods to announce remarkable events, chief among these being the deaths of monarchs. Shakespeare has reminded us of this in those celebrated lines in Julius Caesar:—

"When beggars die there are no comets seen, The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes."

Numbed by fear, the men of old blindly accepted these presages of fate; and did not too closely question whether the threatened danger was to their own nation or to some other, to their ruler or to his enemy. Now and then, as in the case of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, there was a cynical attempt to apply some reasoning to the portent. That emperor, in alluding to the comet of A.D. 79, is reported to have said: "This hairy star does not concern me; it menaces rather the King of the Parthians, for he is hairy and I am bald." Vespasian, all the same, died shortly afterwards!

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