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Category:Astronomy

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In the universe there are galaxies, which can be divided into solar systems.

As*tron"o*my, n. Etym: [OE. astronomie, F. astronomie, L. astronomia, fr. Gr. Star, and Nomad.]

1. Astrology. [Obs.] Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck; And yet methinks I have astronomy. Shak.

2. The science which treats of the celestial bodies, of their magnitudes, motions, distances, periods of revolution, eclipses, constitution, physical condition, and of the causes of their various phenomena.

3. A treatise on, or text-book of, the science. Physical astronomy. See under Physical.

Note: the following content is mostly from a public domain book; it might not be up to date!

Contents

CHAPTER I

THE CONTEMPLATION OF THE HEAVENS

The crimson disk of the Sun has plunged beneath the Ocean. The sea has decked itself with the burning colors of the orb, reflected from the Heavens in a mirror of turquoise and emerald. The rolling waves are gold and silver, and break noisily on a shore already darkened by the disappearance of the celestial luminary.

We gaze regretfully after the star of day, that poured its cheerful rays anon so generously over many who were intoxicated with gaiety and happiness. We dream, contemplating the magnificent spectacle, and in dreaming forget the moments that are rapidly flying by. Yet the darkness gradually increases, and twilight gives way to night.

The most indifferent spectator of the setting Sun as it descends beneath the waves at the far horizon, could hardly be unmoved by the pageant of Nature at such an impressive moment.

The light of the Crescent Moon, like some fairy boat suspended in the sky, is bright enough to cast changing and dancing sparkles of silver upon the ocean. The[Pg 11] Evening Star declines slowly in its turn toward the western horizon. Our gaze is held by a shining world that dominates the whole of the occidental heavens. This is the "Shepherd's Star," Venus of rays translucent.

Little by little, one by one, the more brilliant stars shine out. Here are the white Vega of the Lyre, the burning Arcturus, the seven stars of the Great Bear, a whole sidereal population catching fire, like innumerable eyes that open on the Infinite. It is a new life that is revealed to our imagination, inviting us to soar into these mysterious regions.

O Night, diapered with fires innumerable! hast thou not written in flaming letters on these Constellations the syllables of the great enigma of Eternity? The contemplation of thee is a wonder and a charm. How rapidly canst thou efface the regrets we suffered on the departure of our beloved Sun! What wealth, what beauty hast thou not reserved for our enraptured souls! Where is the man that can remain blind to such a pageant and deaf to its language!

To whatever quarter of the Heavens we look, the splendors of the night are revealed to our astonished gaze. These celestial eyes seem in their turn to gaze at, and to question us. Thus indeed have they questioned every thinking soul, so long as Humanity has existed on our Earth. Homer saw and sung these[Pg 12] self-same stars. They shone upon the slow succession of civilizations that have disappeared, from Egypt of the period of the Pyramids, Greece at the time of the Trojan War, Rome and Carthage, Constantine and Charlemagne, down to the Twentieth Century. The generations are buried with the dust of their ancient temples. The Stars are still there, symbols of Eternity.

The silence of the vast and starry Heavens may terrify us; its immensity may seem to overwhelm us. But our inquiring thought flies curiously on the wings of dream, toward the remotest regions of the visible. It rests on one star and another, like the butterfly on the flower. It seeks what will best respond to its aspirations: and thus a kind of communication is established, and, as it were, protected by all Nature in these silent appeals. Our sense of solitude has disappeared. We feel that, if only as infinitesimal atoms, we form part of that immense universe, and this dumb language of the starry night is more eloquent than any speech. Each star becomes a friend, a discreet confidant, often indeed a precious counsellor, for all the thoughts it suggests to us are pure and holy.

Is any poem finer than the book written in letters of fire upon the tablets of the firmament? Nothing could be more ideal. And yet, the poetic sentiment that the beauty of Heaven awakens in our soul[Pg 13] ought not to veil its reality from us. That is no less marvelous than the mystery by which we were enchanted.

And here we may ask ourselves how many there are, even among thinking human beings, who ever raise their eyes to the starry heavens? How many men and women are sincerely, and with unfeigned curiosity, interested in these shining specks, and inaccessible luminaries, and really desirous of a better acquaintance with them?

Seek, talk, ask in the intercourse of daily life. You, who read these pages, who already love the Heavens, and comprehend them, who desire to account for our existence in this world, who seek to know what the Earth is, and what Heaven—you shall witness that the number of those inquiring after truth is so limited that no one dares to speak of it, so disgraceful is it to the so-called intelligence of our race. And yet! the great Book of the Heavens is open to all eyes. What pleasures await us in the study of the Universe! Nothing could speak more eloquently to our heart and intellect!

Astronomy is the science par excellence. It is the most beautiful and most ancient of all, inasmuch as it dates back to the indeterminate times of highest antiquity. Its mission is not only to make us acquainted with the innumerable orbs by which our nights are[Pg 14] illuminated, but it is, moreover, thanks to it that we know where and what we are. Without it we should live as the blind, in eternal ignorance of the very conditions of our terrestrial existence. Without it we should still be penetrated with the naïve error that reduced the entire Universe to our minute globule, making our Humanity the goal of the Creation, and should have no exact notion of the immense reality.

To-day, thanks to the intellectual labor of so many centuries, thanks also to the immortal genius of the men of science who have devoted their lives to searching after Truth—men such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton—the veil of ignorance has been rent, and glimpses of the marvels of creation are perceptible in their splendid truth to the dazzled eye of the thinker.

The study of Astronomy is not, as many suppose, the sacrifice of oneself in a cerebral torture that obliterates all the beauty, the fascination, and the grandeur of the pageant of Nature. Figures, and naught but figures, would not be entertaining, even to those most desirous of instruction. Let the reader take courage! We do not propose that he shall decipher the hieroglyphics of algebra and geometry. Perish the thought! For the rest, figures are but the scaffolding, the method, and do not exist in Nature.

[Pg 15]

File:Fig01.jpg Fig. 1.—The great Book of the Heavens is open to all eyes.

[Pg 16]

We simply beg of you to open your eyes, to see where you are, so that you may not stray from the path of truth, which is also the path of happiness. Once you have entered upon it, no persuasion will be needed to make you persevere. And you will have the profound satisfaction of knowing that you are thinking correctly, and that it is infinitely better to be educated than to be ignorant. The reality is far beyond all dreams, beyond the most fantastic imagination. The most fairy-like transformations of our theaters, the most resplendent pageants of our military reviews, the most sumptuous marvels on which the human race can pride itself—all that we admire, all that we envy on the Earth—is as nothing compared with the unheard-of wonders scattered through Infinitude. There are so many that one does not know how to see them. The fascinated eye would fain grasp all at once.

If you will yield yourselves to the pleasure of gazing upon the sparkling fires of Space, you will never regret the moments passed all too rapidly in the contemplation of the Heavens.

Diamonds, turquoises, rubies, emeralds, all the precious stones with which women love to deck themselves, are to be found in greater perfection, more beautiful, and more splendid, set in the immensity of Heaven! In the telescopic field, we may watch the progress of armies of majestic and powerful suns, from[Pg 17] whose attacks there is naught to fear. And these vagabond comets and shooting stars and stellar nebulæ, do they not make up a prodigious panorama? What are our romances in comparison with the History of Nature? Soaring toward the Infinite, we purify our souls from all the baseness of this world, we strive to become better and more intelligent.


But in the first place, you ask, what are the Heavens? This vault oppresses us. We can not venture to investigate it.

Heaven, we reply, is no vault, it is a limitless immensity, inconceivable, unfathomable, that surrounds us on all sides, and in the midst of which our globe is floating. The Heavens are all that exists, all that we see, and all that we do not see: the Earth on which we are, that bears us onward in her rapid flight; the Moon that accompanies us, and sheds her soft beams upon our silent nights; the good Sun to which we owe our existence; the Stars, suns of Infinitude; in a word—the whole of Creation.

Yes, our Earth is an orb of the Heavens: the sky is her domain, and our Sun, shining above our heads, and fertilizing our seasons, is as much a star as the pretty sparkling points that scintillate up there, in the far distance, and embellish the calm of our nights[Pg 18] with their brilliancy. All are in the Heavens, you as well as I, for the Earth, in her course through Space, bears us with herself into the depths of Infinitude.

In the Heavens there is neither "above" nor "below." These words do not exist in celestial speech, because their significance is relative to the surface of this planet only. In reality, for the inhabitants of the Earth, "low" is the inside, the center of the globe, and "high" is what is above our heads, all round the Earth. The Heavens are what surround us on all sides, to Infinity.

The Earth is, like her fellows, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, one of the planets of the great solar family.

The Sun, her father, protects her, and directs all her actions. She, as the grateful daughter, obeys him blindly. All float in perfect harmony over the celestial ocean.

But, you may say, on what does the Earth rest in her ethereal navigation?

On nothing. The Earth turns round the colossal Sun, a little globe of relatively light weight, isolated on all sides in Space, like a soap-bubble blown by some careless child.

Above, below, on all sides, millions of similar globes are grouped into families, and form other systems of[Pg 19] worlds revolving round the numerous and distant stars that people Infinitude; suns more or less analogous to that by which we are illuminated, and generally speaking of larger bulk, although our Sun is a million times larger than our planet.

Among the ancients, before the isolation of our globe in Space and the motions that incessantly alter its position were recognized, the Earth was supposed to be the immobile lower half of the Universe. The sky was regarded as the upper half. The ancients supplied our world with fantastic supports that penetrated to the Infernal Regions. They could not admit the notion of the Earth's isolation, because they had a false idea of its weight. To-day, however, we know positively that the Earth is based on nothing. The innumerable journeys accomplished round it in all directions give definite proof of this. It is attached to nothing. As we said before, there is neither "above" nor "below" in the Universe. What we call "below" is the center of the Earth. For the rest the Earth turns upon its own axis in twenty-four hours. Night is only a partial phenomenon, due to the rotary motion of the planet, a motion that could not exist under conditions other than that of the absolute isolation of our globe in space.

[Pg 20]

File:Fig02.jpg Fig. 2.—The earth in space. June solstice, midday.

Since the Sun can only illuminate one side of our globe at one moment, that is to say one hemisphere, it follows that Night is nothing but the state of the part that is not illuminated. As the Earth revolves upon itself, all the parts successively exposed to the Sun are in the day, while the parts situated opposite to the Sun, in the cone of shadow produced by the Earth itself, are in night. But whether it be noon or midnight, the stars always occupy the same position in[Pg 21] the Heavens, even when, dazzled by the ardent light of the orb of day, we can no longer see them; and when we are plunged into the darkness of the night, the god Phœbus still continues to pour his beneficent rays upon the countries turned toward him.

The sequence of day and night is a phenomenon belonging, properly speaking, to the Earth, in which the rest of the Universe does not participate. The same occurs for every world that is illuminated by a sun, and endowed with a rotary movement. In absolute space, there is no succession of nights and days.

Upheld in space by forces that will be explained at a later point, our planet glides in the open heavens round our Sun.

Imagine a magnificent aerostat, lightly and rapidly cleaving space. Surround it with eight little balloons of different sizes, the smallest like those sold on the streets for children to play with, the larger, such as are distributed for a bonus in large stores. Imagine this group sailing through the air, and you have the system of our worlds in miniature.

Still, this is only an image, a comparison. The balloons are held up by the atmosphere, in which they float at equilibrium. The Earth is sustained by nothing material. What maintains her in equilibrium is the ethereal void; an immaterial force; gravitation. The[Pg 22] Sun attracts her, and if she did not revolve, she would drop into him; but rotating round him, at a speed of 107,000 kilometers[2] (about 66,000 miles) per hour, she produces a centrifugal force, like that of a stone in a sling, that is precisely equivalent, and of contrary sign, to its gravitation toward the central orb, and these two equilibrated forces keep her at the same medium distance.

This solar and planetary group does not exist solitary in the immense void that extends indefinitely around us. As we said above, each star that we admire in the depths of the sky, and to which we lift up our eyes and thoughts during the charmed hours of the night, is another sun burning with its own light, the chief of a more or less numerous family, such as are multiplied through all space to infinity. Notwithstanding the immense distances between the sun-stars, Space is so vast, and the number of these so great, that by an effect of perspective due solely to the distance, appearances would lead us to believe that the stars were touching. And under certain telescopic aspects, and in some of the astral photographs, they really do appear to be contiguous.

The Universe is infinite. Space is limitless. If[Pg 23] our love for the Heavens should incite in us the impulse, and provide us with the means of undertaking a journey directed to the ends of Heaven as its goal, we should be astonished, on arriving at the confines of the Milky Way, to see the grandiose and phenomenal spectacle of a new Universe unfold before our dazzled eyes; and if in our mad career we crossed this new archipelago of worlds to seek the barriers of Heaven beyond them, we should still find universe eternally succeeding to universe before us. Millions of suns roll on in the immensities of Space. Everywhere, on all sides, Creation renews itself in an infinite variety.

According to all the probabilities, universal life is distributed there as well as here, and has sown the germ of intelligence upon those distant worlds that we divine in the vicinity of the innumerable suns that plow the ether, for everything upon the Earth tends to show that Life is the goal of Nature. Burning foci, inextinguishable sources of warmth and light, these various, multi-colored suns shed their rays upon the worlds that belong to them and which they fertilize.

Our globe is no exception in the Universe. As we have seen, it is one of the celestial orbs, nourished, warmed, lighted, quickened by the Sun, which in its turn again is but a star.

[Pg 24]

Innumerable Worlds! We dream of them. Who can say that their unknown inhabitants do not think of us in their turn, and that Space may not be traversed by waves of thought, as it is by the vibrations of light and universal gravitation? May not an immense solidarity, hardly guessed at by our imperfect senses, exist between the Celestial Humanities, our Earth being only a modest planet.

Let us meditate on this Infinity! Let us lose no opportunity of employing the best of our hours, those of the silence and peace of the bewitching nights, in contemplating, admiring, spelling out the words of the Great Book of the Heavens. Let our freed souls fly swift and rapt toward those marvelous countries where indescribable joys are prepared for us, and let us do homage to the first and most splendid of the sciences, to Astronomy, which diffuses the light of Truth within us.

To poetical souls, the contemplation of the Heavens carries thought away to higher regions than it attains in any other meditation. Who does not remember the beautiful lines of Victor Hugo in the Orientales? Who has not heard or read them? The poem is called "Ecstasy," and it is a fitting title. The words are sometimes set to music, and the melody seems to complete their pure beauty:

[Pg 25]

J'étais seul près des flots par une nuit d'étoiles.Pas un nuage aux cieux, sur les mers pas de voiles;Mes yeux plongeaient plus loin que le monde réel,Et les bois et les monts et toute la natureSemblaient interroger, dans un confus murmure,Les flots des mers, les feux du ciel.Et les étoiles d'or, légions infinies,A voix haute, à voix basse, avec mille harmoniesDisaient, en inclinant leurs couronnes de feu;Et les flots bleus, que rien ne gouverne et n'arrête,Disaient en recourbant l'écume de leur crête:... C'est le Seigneur, le Seigneur Dieu!

Note: Free Translation

I was alone on the waves, on a starry night,Not a cloud in the sky, not a sail in sight,My eyes pierced beyond the natural world...And the woods, and the hills, and the voice of NatureSeemed to question in a confused murmur,The waves of the Sea, and Heaven's fires.And the golden stars in infinite legion,Sang loudly, and softly, in glad recognition,Inclining their crowns of fire;...And the waves that naught can check nor arrestSang, bowing the foam of their haughty crest...Behold the Lord God—Jehovah!

[Pg 26]

The immortal poet of France was an astronomer. The author more than once had the honor of conversing with him on the problems of the starry sky—and reflected that astronomers might well be poets.

It is indeed difficult to resist a sense of profound emotion before the abysses of infinite Space, when we behold the innumerable multitude of worlds suspended above our heads. We feel in this solitary contemplation of the Heavens that there is more in the Universe than tangible and visible matter: that there are forces, laws, destinies. Our ants' brains may know themselves microscopic, and yet recognize that there is something greater than the Earth, the Heavens;—more absolute than the Visible, the Invisible;—beyond the more or less vulgar affairs of life, the sense of the True, the Good, the Beautiful. We feel that an immense mystery broods over Nature,—over Being, over created things. And it is here again that Astronomy surpasses all the other sciences, that it becomes our sovereign teacher, that it is the pharos of modern philosophy.

O Night, mysterious, sublime, and infinite! withdrawing from our eyes the veil spread above us by the light of day, giving back transparency to the Heavens, showing us the prodigious reality, the shining casket of the celestial diamonds, the innumerable stars that succeed each other interminably in immeasurable space![Pg 27] Without Night we should know nothing. Without it our eyes would never have divined the sidereal population, our intellects would never have pierced the harmony of the Heavens, and we should have remained the blind, deaf parasites of a world isolated from the rest of the universe.

CHAPTER II

THE CONSTELLATIONS

In Chapter I we saw the Earth hanging in space, like a globe isolated on all sides, and surrounded at vast distances by a multitude of stars.

These fiery orbs are suns like that which illuminates ourselves. They shine by their own light. We know this for a fact, because they are so far off that they could neither be illuminated by the Sun, nor, still more, reflect his rays back upon us: and because, on the other hand, we have been able to measure and analyze their light. Many of these distant suns are simple and isolated; others are double, triple, or multiple; others appear to be the centers of systems analogous to that which gravitates round our own Sun, and of which we form part. But these celestial tribes are situated at such remote distances from us that it is impossible to distinguish all the individuals of each particular family. The most delicate observations have only revealed a few of them. We must content ourselves here with admiring the principals,—the sun-stars,—prodigious[Pg 29] globes, flaming torches, scattered profusely through the firmament.

How, then, is one to distinguish them? How can they be readily found and named? There are so many of them!

Do not fear; it is quite a simple matter. In studying the surface of the Earth we make use of geographical maps on which the continents and seas of which it consists are drawn with the utmost care. Each country of our planet is subdivided into states, each of which has its proper name. We shall pursue the same plan in regard to the Heavens, and it will be all the easier since the Great Book of the Firmament is constantly open to our gaze. Our globe, moreover, actually revolves upon itself so that we read the whole in due sequence. Given a clear atmosphere, and a little stimulus to the will from our love of truth and science, and the geography of the Heavens, or "uranography," will soon be as familiar to us as the geography of our terrestrial atom.

On a beautiful summer's night, when we look toward the starry sky, we are at first aware only of a number of shining specks. The stars seem to be scattered almost accidentally through Space; they are so numerous and so close to one another that it would appear rash to attempt to name them separately. Yet some[Pg 30] of the brighter ones particularly attract and excite our attention. After a little observation we notice a certain regularity in the arrangement of these distant suns, and take pleasure in drawing imaginary figures round the celestial groups.

CHAPTER IV

OUR STAR THE SUN

In the incessant agitation of daily life in which we are involved by the thousand superfluous wants of modern "civilization," one is prone to assume that existence is complete only when it reckons to the good an incalculable number of petty incidents, each more insignificant than the last. Why lose time in thinking or dreaming? We must live at fever heat, must agitate, and be infatuated for inanities, must create imaginary desires and torments.

The thoughtful mind, prone to contemplation and admiration of the beauties of Nature, is ill at ease in this perpetual vortex that swallows everything—satisfaction, in a life that one has not time to relish; love of the beautiful, that one views with indifference; it is a whirlpool that perpetually hides Truth from us, forgotten forever at the bottom of her well.

And why are our lives thus absorbed in merely material interests? To satisfy our pride and vanity! To make ourselves slaves to chimeras! If the Moon[Pg 89] were inhabited, and if her denizens could see us plainly enough to note and analyze the details of human existence on the surface of our planet, it would be curious and perhaps a little humiliating for us, to see their statistics. What! we should say, is this the sum of our lives? Is it for this that we struggle, and suffer, and die? Truly it is futile to give ourselves such trouble.

And yet the remedy is simple, within the power of every one; but one does not think of it just because it is too easy, although it has the immense advantage of lifting us out of the miseries of this weary world toward the inexpressible happiness that must always awaken in us with the knowledge of the Truth: we need only open our eyes to see, and to look out. Only—one hardly ever thinks of it, and it is easier to let one's self be blinded by the illusion and false glamor of appearances.

Think what it would be to consecrate an hour each day to voluntary participation in the harmonious Choir of Nature, to raise one's eyes toward the Heavens, to share the lessons taught by the Pageant of the Universe! But, no: there is no time, no time for the intellectual life, no time to become attached to real interests, no time to pursue them.

Among the objects marshaled for us in the immense spectacle of Nature, nothing without exception has[Pg 90] struck the admiration and attention of man as much as the Sun. And yet how many beyond the circle of those likely to read these pages know that this Sun is a star in the Milky Way, and that every star is a sun? How many take any account of the reality and grandeur of the Universe? Inquire, and you will find that the number of people who have any notion, however rudimentary, of its construction, is singularly restricted. Humanity is content to vegetate, much after the fashion of a race of moles.

Henceforward, you will know that you are living in the rays of a star, which, from its proximity, we term a sun. To the inhabitants of other systems of worlds, our splendid Sun is only a more or less brilliant, luminous point, according as the spot from which it is observed is nearer or farther off. But to us its "terrestrial" importance renders it particularly precious; we forget all the sister stars on its account, and even the most ignorant hail it with enthusiasm without exactly knowing what its role in the universe may be, simply because they feel that they depend on it, and that without it life would become extinct on this globe. Yes, it is the[Pg 91] beneficent rays of the Sun that shed upon our Earth the floods of light and heat to which Life owes its existence and its perpetual propagation.

The Sun sustains our globe in Space, and keeps it within his rays by the mysteriously powerful and delicate cords of attraction. It is the Sun that we inhale from the embalmed corollas of the flowers that uplift their gracious heads toward his light, and reflect his splendors back to us. It is the Sun that sparkles in the foam of the merry wine; that charms our gaze in those first days of spring, when the home of the human race is adorned with all the charms of verdant and flowering youth. Everywhere we find the Sun; everywhere we recognize his work, extending from the infinitely great to the infinitely little. We bow to his might, and admire his power. When in the sad winter day he disappears behind the snowy eaves, we think his fiery globe will never rise to mitigate the short December days which are alleviated with his languid beams.

April restores him to superb majesty, and our hearts[Pg 92] are filled with hope in the illumination of those beauteous, sunny hours.


Our celestial journey carried us far indeed from our own Solar System. Guided by the penetrating eye of the telescope, we reached such distant creations that we lost sight of our cherished luminary.

But we remember that he burns yonder, in the midst of the pale cosmic cloud we term the Milky Way. Let us approach him, now that we have visited the Isles of Light in the Celestial Ocean; let us traverse the vast plains strewn with the burning gold of the Suns of the Infinite.

We embark upon a ray of light, and glide rapidly to the portals of our Universe. Soon we perceive a tiny speck, scintillating feebly in the depths of Space, and recognize it as our own celestial quarters. This little star shines like the head of a gold pin, and increases in size as we advance toward it. We traverse a few more trillion miles in our rapid course, and it shines out like a fine star of the first magnitude. It grows larger and larger. Soon we divine that it is our humble Earth that is shining before us, and gladly alight upon her. In future we shall not quit our own province of the Celestial Kingdom, but will enter into[Pg 93] relations with this solar family, which interests us the more in that it affects us so closely.

The Sun, which is manifested to us as a fine white disk at noon, while it is fiery red in the evening, at its setting, is an immense globe, whose colossal dimensions[Pg 94] surpass those of our terrestrial atom beyond all conceivable proportion.

In diameter, it is, in effect, 1081⁄2 times as large as the Earth; that is to say, if our planet be represented by a globe 1 meter in diameter, the Sun would figure as a sphere 1081⁄2 meters across. This is shown on the accompanying figure (Fig. 28), which is in exact proportion.

If our world were set down upon the Sun, with all its magnificence, all its wealth, its mountains, its seas, its monuments, and its inhabitants, it would only be an imperceptible speck. It would occupy less space in the central orb than one grain in a grenade. If the Earth were placed in the center of the Sun, with the Moon still revolving round it at her proper distance of 384,000 kilometers (238,500 miles), only half the solar surface would be covered.

In volume the Sun is 1,280,000 times vaster than our abode, and 324,000 times heavier in mass. That the giant only appears to us as a small though very brilliant disk, is solely on account of its distance. Its apparent dimensions by no means reveal its majestic proportions to us.

When observed with astronomical instruments, or photographed, we discover that its surface is not smooth, as might be supposed, but granulated, presenting a[Pg 95] number of luminous points dispersed over a more somber background. These granulations are somewhat like the pores of a fruit, e.g., a fine orange, the color of which recalls the hue of the Sun when it sinks in the evening, and prepares to plunge us into darkness. At times these pores open under the influence of disturbances that arise upon the solar surface, and give birth to a Sun-Spot. For centuries scientists and lay people alike refused to admit the existence of these spots, regarding them as so many blemishes upon the Sun. Was not the Sun the emblem of inviolable purity? To find any defect in him were to do him grievous injury. Since the orb of day was incorruptible, those who threw doubt on his immaculate splendor were fools and idiots. And so when Scheiner, one of the first who studied the solar spots with the telescope, published the result of his experiments in 1610, no one would believe his statements.

Yet, from the observations of Galileo and other astronomers, it became necessary to accept the evidence, and stranger still to recognize that it is by these very spots that we are enabled to study the physical constitution of the Sun.

They are generally rounded or oval in shape, and exhibit two distinct parts; first, the central portion, which is black, and is called the nucleus, or umbra; second,[Pg 96] a clearer region, half shaded, which has received the name of penumbra. These parts are sharply defined in outline; the penumbra is gray, the nucleus looks black in relation to the dazzling brilliancy of the solar surface; but as a matter of fact it radiates a light 2,000 times superior in intensity to that of the full moon.

Some idea of the aspect of these spots may be obtained from the accompanying reproduction of a photograph of the Sun (taken September 8, 1898, at the[Pg 97] author's observatory at Juvisy), and from the detailed drawing of the large spot that broke out some days later (September 13), crossed by a bridge, and furrowed with flames. As a rule, the spots undergo rapid transformations.

These spots, which appear of insignificant dimensions[Pg 98] to the observers on the Earth, are in reality absolutely gigantic. Some that have been measured are ten times as large as the Earth's diameter, i.e., 120,000 kilometers (74,500 miles).

Sometimes the spots are so large that they can be seen with the unaided eye (protected with black or dark-blue glasses). They are not formed instantaneously, but are heralded by a vast commotion on the solar surface, exhibiting, as it were, luminous waves or faculæ. Out of this agitation arises a little spot, that is usually round, and enlarges progressively to reach a maximum, after which it diminishes, with frequent segmentation and shrinkage. Some are visible only for a few days; others last for months. Some appear, only to be instantly swallowed in the boiling turmoil of the flaming orb. Sometimes, again, white incandescent waves emerge, and seem to throw luminous bridges across the central umbra. As a rule the spots are not very profound. They are funnel-shaped depressions, inferior in depth to the diameter of the Earth, which, as we have seen, is 108 times smaller than that of the Sun.


The Sun-Spots are not devoid of motion, and from their movements we learn that the radiant orb revolves upon itself in about twenty-five days. This rotation was determined in 1611, by Galileo, who, while [Pg 99]observing the spots, saw that they traversed the solar disk from east to west, following lines that are oblique to the plane of the ecliptic, and that they disappear at the western border fourteen days after their arrival at the eastern edge. Sometimes the same spot, after being invisible for fourteen days, reappears upon the eastern edge, where it was observed twenty-eight days previously. It progresses toward the center of the Sun, which is reached in seven days, disappears anew in the west, and continues its journey on the hemisphere opposed to us, to reappear under observation two weeks later, if it has not meantime been extinguished. This observation proves that the Sun revolves upon itself. The reappearance of the spots occurs in about twenty-seven days, because the Earth is not stationary, and in its movement round the burning focus, a motion effected in the same direction as the solar rotation, the spots are still visible two and a half days after they disappeared from the point at which they had been twenty-five days previously. In reality, the rotation of the Sun occupies twenty-five and a half days, but strangely enough this globe does not rotate in one uniform period, like the Earth; the rotation periods, or movements of the different parts of the solar surface, diminish from the Sun's equator toward its poles. The period is twenty-five days at the equator, twenty-six at[Pg 100] the twenty-fourth degree of latitude, north or south, twenty-seven at the thirty-seventh degree, twenty-eight at the forty-eighth. The spots are usually formed between the equator and this latitude, more especially between the tenth and thirtieth degrees. They have never been seen round the poles.

Toward the edges of the Sun, again, are very brilliant and highly luminous regions, which generally surround the spots, and have been termed faculæ (facula, a little torch). These faculæ, which frequently occupy a very extensive surface, seem to be the seat of formidable commotions that incessantly revolutionize the face of our monarch, often, as we said, preceding the spots. They can be detected right up to the poles.

Our Sun, that appears so calm and majestic, is in reality the seat of fierce conflagrations. Volcanic eruptions, the most appalling storms, the worst cataclysms that sometimes disturb our little world, are gentle zephyrs compared with the solar tempests that engender clouds of fire capable at one burst of engulfing globes of the dimensions of our planet.

To compare terrestrial volcanoes with solar eruptions is like comparing the modest night-light that consumes a midge with the flames of the fire that destroys a town.

The solar spots vary in a fairly regular period of[Pg 101] eleven to twelve years. In certain years, e.g., 1893, they are vast, numerous and frequent; in other years, e.g., 1901, they are few and insignificant. The statistics are very carefully preserved. Here, for instance, is the surface showing sun-spots expressed in millionths of the extent of the visible solar surface:


1889
78
1890
99
1891
569
1892
1,214
1893
1,464
1895
974
1896
543
1897
514
1898
375
1899
111
1900
75
1901
29
1902
62

The years 1889 and 1901 were minima; the year 1893 a maximum.

It is a curious fact that terrestrial magnetism and the boreal auroras exhibit an oscillation parallel to that of the solar spots, and apparently the same occurs with regard to temperature.

We must regard our sun as a globe of gas in a state of combustion, burning at high temperature, and giving off a prodigious amount of heat and light. The dazzling surface of this globe is called a photosphere (light sphere). It is in perpetual motion, like the waves of an ocean of fire, whose roseate and transparent flames measure[Pg 102] some 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) in height. This stratum of rose-colored flames has received the name of chromosphere (color sphere). It is transparent; it is not directly visible, but is seen only during the total eclipses of the Sun, when the dazzling disk of that luminary is entirely concealed by the Moon; or with the aid of the spectroscope. The part of the Sun that we see is its luminous surface, or photosphere.

From this agitated surface there is a constant ejection of gigantic eruptions, immense jets of flame, geysers of fire, projected at a terrific speed to prodigious heights.

For years astronomers were greatly perplexed as to the nature of these incandescent masses, known as prominences, which shot out like fireworks, and were only visible during the total eclipses of the Sun. But now, thanks to an ingenious invention of Janssen and Lockyer, these eruptions can be observed every day in the spectroscope, and have been registered since 1868, more particularly in Rome and in Catania, where the Society of Spectroscopists was founded with this especial object, and publishes monthly bulletins in statistics of the health of the Sun.

These prominences assume all imaginable forms, and often resemble our own storm-clouds; they rise above the chromosphere with incredible velocity, often [Pg 103]exceeding 200 kilometers (124 miles) per second, and are carried up to the amazing height of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles).

The Sun is surrounded with these enormous flames on every side; sometimes they shoot out into space like splendid curving roseate plumes; at others they rear their luminous heads in the Heavens, like the[Pg 104] cleft and waving leaves of giant palm-trees. Having illustrated a remarkable type of solar spot, it is interesting to submit to the reader a precise observation of these curious solar flames. That reproduced here was observed in Rome, January 30, 1885. It measured 228,000 kilometers (141,500 miles) in height, eighteen times the diameter of the earth (represented alongside in its relative magnitude). (Fig. 31.)

Solar eruptions have been seen to reach, in a few minutes, a height of more than 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles), and then to fall back in a flaming torrent into that burning and inextinguishable ocean.

Observation, in conjunction with spectral analysis, shows these prominences to be due to formidable explosions produced within the actual substance of the Sun, and projecting masses of incandescent hydrogen into space with considerable force.

Nor is this all. During an eclipse one sees around the black disk of the Moon as it passes in front of the Sun and intercepts its light, a brilliant and rosy aureole with long, luminous, branching feathers streaming out, like aigrettes, which extend a very considerable distance from the solar surface. This aureole, the nature of which is still unknown to us, has received the name of corona. It is a sort of immense atmosphere, extremely rarefied. Our superb torch, accordingly, is a brazier[Pg 105] of unparalleled activity—a globe of gas, agitated by phenomenal tempests whose flaming streamers extend afar. The smallest of these flames is so potent that it would swallow up our world at a single breath, like the bombs shot out by Vesuvius, that fall back within the crater.

What now is the real heat of this incandescent focus? The most accurate researches estimate the temperature of the surface of the Sun at 7,000°C. The internal temperature must be considerably higher. A crucible of molten iron poured out upon the Sun would be as a stream of ice and snow.

We can form some idea of this calorific force by making certain comparisons. Thus, the heat given out appears to be equal to that which would be emitted by a colossal globe of the same dimensions (that is, as voluminous as twelve hundred and eighty thousand terrestrial globes), entirely covered with a layer of incandescent coal 28 kilometers (18 miles) in depth, all burning at equal combustion. The heat emitted by the Sun, at each second, is equal to that which would result from the combustion of eleven quadrillions six hundred thousand milliards of tons of coal, all burning together. This same heat would bring to the boil in an hour, two trillions nine hundred milliards of cubic kilometers of water at freezing-point.

[Pg 106]

Our little planet, gravitating at 149,000,000 kilometers (93,000,000 miles) from the Sun, arrests on the way, and utilizes, only the half of a milliard part of this total radiation.

How is this heat maintained? One of the principal causes of the heat of the Sun is its condensation. According to all probabilities, the solar globe represents for us the nucleus of a vast nebula, that extended in primitive times beyond the orbit of Neptune, and which in its contraction has finally produced this central focus. In virtue of the law of transformation of motion into heat, this condensation, which has not yet reached its limit, suffices to raise this colossal globe to its level of temperature, and to maintain it there for millions of years. In addition, a substantial number of meteors is forever falling into it. This furnace is a true pandemonium.

The Sun weighs three hundred and twenty-four thousand times more than the Earth—that is to say, eighteen hundred and seventy octillions of kilograms:

1,870,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000(1,842,364,532,019,704,433,497,536,945 tons).

In Chapter XI we shall explain the methods by which it has been found possible to weigh the Sun and determine its exact distance.


[Pg 107]

I trust these figures will convey some notion of the importance and nature of the Sun, the stupendous orb on whose rays our very existence depends. Its apparent dimension (which is only half a degree, 32′, and would be hidden from sight, like that of the full moon, which is about the same, by the tip of the little finger held out at arm's length), represents, as we have seen, a real dimension that is colossal, i.e., 1,383,000 kilometers (more than 857,000 miles), and this is owing to the enormous distance that separates us from it. This distance of 149,000,000 kilometers (93,000,000 miles) is sufficiently hard to appreciate. Let us say that 11,640 terrestrial globes would be required to throw a bridge from here to the Sun, while 30 would suffice from the Earth to the Moon. The Moon is 388 times nearer to us than the Sun. We may perhaps conceive of this distance by calculating that a train, moving at constant speed of 1 kilometer (0.6214 mile) a minute, would take 149,000,000 minutes, that is to say 103,472 days, or 283 years, to cross the distance that separates us from this orb. Given the normal duration of life, neither the travelers who set out for the Sun, nor their children, nor their grandchildren, would arrive there: only the seventh generation would reach the goal, and only the fourteenth could bring us back news of it.

Children often cry for the Moon. If one of these[Pg 108] inquisitive little beings could stretch out its arms to touch the Sun, and burn its fingers there, it would not feel the burn for one hundred and sixty-seven years (when it would no longer be an infant), for the nervous impulse of sensation can only be transmitted from the ends of the fingers to the brain at a velocity of 28 meters per second.

'Tis long. A cannon-ball would reach the Sun in ten years. Light, that rapid arrow that flies through space at a velocity of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles per second), takes only eight minutes seventeen seconds to traverse this distance.


This brilliant Sun is not only sovereign of the Earth; he is also the head of a vast planetary system.

The orbs that circle round the Sun are opaque bodies, spherical in shape, receiving their light and heat from the central star, on which they absolutely depend. The name of planets given to them signifies "wandering" stars. If you observe the Heavens on a fine starry night, and are sufficiently acquainted with the principal stars of the Zodiac as described in a preceding chapter, you may be surprised on certain evenings to see the figure of some zodiacal constellation slightly modified by the temporary presence of a brilliant orb perhaps surpassing in its luminosity the finest stars of the first magnitude.

[Pg 109]

If you watch this apparition for some weeks, and examine its position carefully in regard to the adjacent stars, you will observe that it changes its position more or less slowly in the Heavens. These wandering orbs, or planets, do not shine with intrinsic light; they are illuminated by the Sun.

The planets, in effect, are bodies as opaque as the Earth, traveling round the God of Day at a speed proportional to their distance. They number eight principal orbs, and may be divided into two quite distinct groups by which we may recognize them: the first comprises four planets, of relatively small dimensions in comparison with those of the second group, which are so voluminous that the least important of them is larger than the other four put together.

In order of distance from the Sun, we first encounter:

MERCURY, VENUS, THE EARTH, AND MARS

These are the worlds that are nearest to the orb of day.

The four following, and much more remote, are, still in order of distance:

JUPITER, SATURN, URANUS, AND NEPTUNE

This second group is separated from the first by a vast space occupied by quite a little army of minute planets, tiny cosmic bodies, the largest of which measures[Pg 110] little more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) in diameter, and the smallest some few miles only.

The planets which form these three groups represent the principal members of the solar family. But the Sun is a patriarch, and each of his daughters has her own children who, while obeying the paternal influence of the fiery orb, are also obedient to the world that governs them. These secondary asters, or satellites, follow the planets in their course, and revolve round them in an ellipse, just as the others rotate round the Sun. Every one knows the satellite of the Earth, the Moon. All the other planets of our system have their own moons, some being even more favored than ourselves in this respect, and having several. Mars has two; Jupiter, five; Saturn, eight; Uranus, four; and Neptune, one (at least as yet discovered).

In order to realize the relations between these worlds, we must appreciate their distances by arranging them in a little table:


  Distance inMillions ofKilometers. Distance inMillions ofMiles.
Mercury 57 35
Venus 108 67
The Earth 149 93
Mars 226 140
Jupiter 775 481
Saturn 1,421 882
Uranus 2,831 1,755
Neptune 4,470 2,771

[Pg 111]

The Sun is at the center (or, more properly speaking, at the focus, for the planets describe an ellipse) of this system, and controls them. Neptune is thirty times farther from the Sun than the Earth. These disparities of distance produce a vast difference in the periods of the planetary revolutions; for while the Earth revolves round the Sun in a year, Venus in 224 days, and Mercury in 88, Mars takes nearly 2 years to accomplish his journey, Jupiter 12 years, Saturn 29, Uranus 84, and Neptune 165.

Even the planets and their moons do not represent the Sun's complete paternity. There are further, in the solar republic, certain vagabond and irregular orbs that travel at a speed that is often most immoderate, occasionally approaching the Sun, not to be consumed therein, but, as it appears, to draw from its radiant source the provision of forces necessary for their perigrinations through space. These are the Comets, which pursue an extremely elongated orbit round the Sun, to which at times they approximate very closely, at other times being excessively distant.

And now to recapitulate our knowledge of the Solar Empire. In the first place, we see a colossal globe of fire dominating and governing the worlds that belong to him. Around him are grouped planets, in number eight principal, formed of solid and obscure matter, gravitating[Pg 112] round the central orb. Other secondary orbs, the satellites, revolve round the planets, which keep them within the sphere of their attraction. And lastly, the comets, irregular celestial bodies, track the whole extent of the great solar province. To these might be added the whirlwinds of meteors, as it were disaggregated comets, which also circle round the Sun, and give origin to shooting stars, when they come into collision with the Earth.

Having now a general idea of our celestial family, and an appreciation of the potent focus that controls it, let us make direct acquaintance with the several members of which it is composed.


[Pg 113]

CHAPTER V

THE PLANETS

A.—Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars

And now we are in the Solar System, at the center, or, better, at the focus of which burns the immense and dazzling orb. We have appreciated the grandeur and potency of the solar globe, whose rays spread out in active waves that bear a fecundating illumination to the worlds that gravitate round him; we have appreciated the distance that separates the Sun from the Earth, the third of the planets retained within his domain, or at least I trust that the comparisons of the times required by certain moving objects to traverse this distance have enabled us to conceive it.

We said that the four planets nearest to the Sun are Mercury, at a distance of 57 million kilometers (35,000,000 miles); Venus, at 108 million (67,000,000 miles); the Earth, at 149 million (93,000,000 miles); and Mars at 226 million (140,000,000 miles). Let us begin our planetary journey with these four stations.

[Pg 114]

MERCURY

A little above the Sun one sometimes sees, now in the West, in the lingering shimmer of the twilight, now in the East, when the tender roseate dawn announces the advent of a clear day, a small star of the first magnitude which remains but a very short time above the horizon, and then plunges back into the flaming sun. One only sees him furtively, from time to time, at the periods of his greatest elongations, either after the setting or before the rising of the radiant orb, when he presents the aspect of a somewhat reddish star.

This planet, like the others, shines only by the reflection of the Sun whose illumination he receives, and as he is in close juxtaposition with it, his light is bright enough, though his volume is inconsiderable. He is smaller than the Earth. His revolution round the Sun being accomplished in about three months, he passes rapidly, in a month and a half, from one side to the other of the orb of day, and is alternately a morning and an evening star. The ancients originally regarded it as two separate planets; but with attentive observation,[Pg 115] they soon perceived its identity. In our somewhat foggy climates, it can only be discovered once or twice a year, and then only by looking for it according to the indications given in the astronomic almanacs.

Mercury courses round the Sun at a distance of 57,000,000 kilometers (35,000,000 miles), and accomplishes his revolution in 87 days, 23 hours, 15 minutes; i.e., 2 months, 27 days, 23 hours, or a little less than three of our months. If the conditions of life were the[Pg 116] same there as here, the existence of the Mercurians must be four times as short as our own. A youth of twenty, awaking to the promise of the life he is just beginning in this world, is an octogenarian in Mercury. There the fair sex would indeed be justified in bewailing the transitory nature of life, and might regret the years that pass too quickly away. Perhaps, however, they are more philosophic than with us.

[Pg 117]

The orbit of Mercury, which of course is within that of the Earth, is not circular, but elliptical, and very eccentric, so elongated that at certain times of the year this planet is extremely remote from the solar focus, and receives only half as much heat and light as at the opposite period; and, in consequence, his distance from the Earth varies considerably.

This globe exhibits phases, discovered in the seventeenth century by Galileo, which recall those of the Moon. They are due to the motions of the planet round the Sun, and are invisible to the unaided eye, but with even a small instrument, one can follow the gradations and study Mercury under every aspect. Sometimes, again, he passes exactly in front of the Sun, and his disk is projected like a black point upon the luminous surface of the flaming orb. This occurred, notably, on May 10, 1891, and November 10, 1894; and the phenomenon[Pg 118] will recur on November 12, 1907, and November 6, 1914.

Mercury is the least of all the worlds in our system (with the exception of the cosmic fragments that circulate between the orbit of Mars and that of Jupiter). His volume equals only 5/100 that of the Earth. His diameter, in comparison with that of our planet, is in the ratio of 373 to 1,000 (a little more than 1⁄3) and measures 4,750 kilometers (2,946 miles). His density is the highest of all the worlds in the great solar family, and exceeds that of our Earth by about 1⁄3; but weight there is less by almost 1⁄2.

Mercury is enveloped in a very dense, thick atmosphere, which doubtless sensibly tempers the solar heat, for the Sun exhibits to the Mercurians a luminous disk about seven times more extensive than that with which we are familiar on the Earth, and when Mercury is at perihelion (that is, nearest to the Sun), his inhabitants receive ten times more light and heat than we obtain at midsummer. In all probability, it would be impossible for us to set foot on this planet without being shattered by a sunstroke.

Observations of Mercury are taken under great difficulties, just because of the immediate proximity of[Pg 120] the solar furnace; yet some have detected patches that might be seas. In any case, these observations are contradictory and uncertain.

Up to the present it has been impossible to determine the duration of the rotation. Some astronomers even think that the Sun's close proximity must have produced strong tides, that would, as it were, have immobilized the globe of Mercury, just as the Earth has immobilized the Moon, forcing it perpetually to present the same side to the Sun. From the point of view of habitation, this situation would be somewhat peculiar; perpetual day upon the illumined half, perpetual night upon the other hemisphere, and a fairly large zone of twilight between the two. Such a condition would indeed be different from the succession of terrestrial days and nights.

As seen from Mercury, the Earth we inhabit would shine out in the starry sky[9] as a magnificent orb of first[Pg 121] magnitude, with the Moon alongside, a faithful little companion. They should form a fine double star, the Earth being a brilliant orb of first magnitude, and the Moon of third, a charming couple.

It is at midnight during the oppositions of the Earth with the Sun that our planet is the most beautiful and brilliant, as is Jupiter for ourselves. The constellations are the same, viewed from Mercury or from the Earth.

VENUS

When the sunset atmosphere is crimson with the glorious rays of the King of Orbs, and all Nature assumes the brooding veil of twilight, the most indifferent eyes are often attracted and captivated by the presence of a star that is almost dazzling, and illuminates with its white and limpid light the heavens darkened by the disappearance of the Sun.

Even through a small telescope, Venus offers remarkable phases.

The planet's variations in magnitude during its journey round the Sun. Imagine it to be rotating in a year of 224 days, 16 hours, 49 minutes, 8 seconds at a distance of 108 million kilometers (67,000,000 miles), the Earth being at 149 million kilometers (93,000,000 miles). Like Mercury, at certain periods it passes between the Sun and ourselves, and as its illuminated hemisphere is of course turned toward the orb of day, we at those times perceive only a sharp and very luminous crescent. At[Pg 125] such periods Venus is entirely, so to say, against the Sun, and presents to us her greatest apparent dimension (Fig. 38). Sometimes, again, like Mercury, she passes immediately in front of the Sun, forming a perfectly round black spot; this happened on December 8, 1874, and December 6, 1882; and will recur on June 7, 2004, and June 5, 2012. These transits have been utilized in celestial geometry in measuring the distance of the Sun.

You will readily divine that the distance of Venus varies considerably according to her position in relation to the Earth: when she is between the Sun and ourselves she is nearest to our world; but it is just at those times that we see least of her surface, because she exhibits to us only a slender crescent. Terrestrial astronomers are accordingly very badly placed for the study of her physical constitution. The best observations can be made when she is situated to right or left of the Sun, and shows us about half her illuminated disk—during the day for choice, because at night there is too much irradiation from her dazzling light.

These phases were discovered by Galileo, in 1610. His observations were among the first that confirmed the veracity of the system of Copernicus, affording an evident example of the movement of the planets round the sun. They are often visible to the unaided eye with good sight, either at dusk, or through light clouds.

Venus, surrounded by a highly dense and rarefied atmosphere, which increases the difficulties of observing her surface, might be called the twin sister of the Earth, so similar are the dimensions of the two worlds. But, strange as it may seem to the many admirers, who are ready to hail in her an abode of joy and happiness, it is most probable that this planet, attractive as she is at a distance, would be a less desirable habitation than our floating island. In fact, the atmosphere of Venus is perpetually covered with cloud, so that the weather there must be always foggy. No definite geographical configuration can be discovered on her, despite the hopes of the eighteenth-century astronomers. We are not even sure that she rotates upon herself, so contradictory are the observations, and so hard is it to distinguish anything clearly upon her surface. A single night of observation suffices to show the rotation[Pg 127] of Mars or of Jupiter; but the beautiful Evening Star remains obstinately veiled from our curiosity.

The author ventures to disagree with this opinion, its apparent probability notwithstanding, because he has invariably received a contrary impression from all his telescopic observations. He has quite recently (spring of 1903) repeated these observations. Choosing a remarkably clear and perfectly calm atmosphere, he examined the splendid planet several times with great attention in the field of the telescope. The right or eastern border (reversed image) was dulled by the atmosphere of Venus; this is the line of separation between day and night. Beneath, at the extreme northern edge, he was attracted on each occasion by a small white patch, a little whiter than the rest of the surface of the planet, surrounded by a light-gray penumbra, giving the exact effect of a polar snow, very analogous to that observed at the poles of Mars. To the author this white[Pg 128] spot on the boreal horn of Venus does not appear to be due to an effect of contrast, as has sometimes been supposed.

Now, if the globe of Venus has poles, it must turn upon itself.

Unfortunately it has proved impossible to distinguish any sign upon the disk, indicative of the direction and speed of its rotary movement, although these observations were made, with others, under excellent conditions.—Three o'clock in the afternoon, brilliant sun, sky clear blue, the planet but little removed from the meridian—at which time it is less dazzling than in the evening.

There is merely the impression; but it is so definite as to prevent the author from adopting the new hypothesis, in virtue of which the planet, as it gravitates round the Sun, presents always the same hemisphere.

If this hypothesis were a reality, Venus would certainly be a very peculiar world. Eternal day on the one side; eternal night on the other. Maximum light and heat at the center of the hemisphere perpetually turned to the Sun; maximum cold and center of night at the antipodes. This icy hemisphere would possibly be uninhabitable, but the resources of Nature are so prodigious, and the law of Life is so imperious, so persistent, under the most disadvantageous and deplorable[Pg 129] terrestrial conditions, that it would be transcending our rights to declare an impossibility of existence, even in this eternal night. The currents of the atmosphere would no doubt suffice to set up perpetual changes of temperature between the two hemispheres, in comparison with which our trade-winds would be the lightest of breezes.

Yes, mystery still reigns upon this adjacent earth, and the most powerful instruments of the observatories of the whole world have been unable to solve it. All we know is that the diameter, surface, volume and mass of this planet, and its weight at the surface, do not differ sensibly from those that characterize our own globe: that this planet is sister to our own, and of the same order, hence probably formed of the same elements. We further know that, as seen from Venus (Fig. 39), the Earth on which we live is a magnificent star, a double orb more brilliant even than when viewed from Mercury. It is a dazzling orb of first magnitude, accompanied by its moon, a star of the second and a half magnitude.

And thus the worlds float on in space, distant symbols of hopes not realized on any one of them, all at different stages of their degree of evolution, representing an ever-growing progress in the sequence of the ages.

Such are the characteristic features of our celestial neighbor. In quitting her, we reach the Earth, which comes immediately next her in order of distance, 149 million kilometers (93,000,000 miles) from the Sun, but as we shall devote an entire chapter to our own planet, we will not halt at this point, but cross in one step the distance that separates Mars from Venus.

Let us only remark in passing, that our planet is the largest of the four spheres adjacent to the Sun. Here are their comparative diameters:


  The Earth = 1. In Kilometers. In Miles.
Mercury 0.373 4,750 2,946
Venus 0.999 12,730 7,894
Earth 1.000 12,742 7,926
Mars 0.528 6,728 4,172

MARS

Two hundred and twenty-six millions of kilometers (140,000,000 miles) from the Sun is the planet Mars, gravitating in an orbit exterior to that which the Earth takes annually round the same center.

This planet is, as we have said, the first encountered after the Earth. Its orbit is very elongated, very eccentric. Mars accomplishes it in a period of 1 year, 321 days, 22 hours, i.e., 1 year, 10 months, 21 days, or 687 days. The velocity of its transit is 23 kilometers (14.5 miles) per second; that of the Earth is 30 (19 miles). Our planet, traveling through space at an average distance of 149 million kilometers (93,000,000 miles) from[Pg 133] the central focus, is separated from Mars by an average distance of 76 million kilometers (47,000,000 miles); but as its orbit is equally elliptic and elongated it follows that at certain epochs the two planets approach one another by something less than 60 million kilometers (37,000,000 miles). These are the periods selected for making the best observations upon our neighbor of the ruddy rays. The oppositions of Mars arrive about every twenty-six months, but the periods of its greatest proximity, when this planet approaches to within 56 million kilometers (34,700,000 miles) of the Earth, occur only every fifteen years.

Mars is then passing perihelion, while our world is at aphelion (or greatest distance from the Sun). At such epochs this globe presents to us an apparent diameter 63 times smaller than that of the Moon, i.e., a telescope that magnifies 63 times would show him to us of the same magnitude as our satellite viewed with the unaided eye, and an instrument that magnified 630 times would show him ten times larger in diameter.

In dimensions he differs considerably from our world, being almost half the size of the Earth. In diameter he measures only 6,728 kilometers (4,172 miles), and his circumference is 21,125 kilometers (13,000 miles). His surface is only 29⁄100 of the terrestrial surface, and his volume only 15⁄100 of our own.

[Pg 134]

This difference in volume causes Mars to be an earth in miniature. When we study his aspects, his geography, his meteorology, we seem to see in space a reduction of our own abode, with certain dissimilarities that excite our curiosity, and make him even more interesting to us.

The Martian world weighs nine times and a half less than our own. If we represent the weight of the Earth by 1,000, that of Mars would be represented by 105. His density is much less than our own; it is only 7⁄10 that of the Earth. A man weighing 70 kilograms, transported to the adjacent globe, would weigh only 26 kilograms.

The earliest telescopic observations revealed the existence of more or less accentuated markings upon the surface of Mars. The progress of optics, admitting of greater magnifications, exhibited the form of these patches more clearly, while the study of their motions enabled the astronomers to determine with remarkable precision the diurnal rotation of this planet. It occurs in 24 hours, 37 minutes, 23.65 seconds. Day and night are accordingly a little longer on Mars than on the Earth, but the difference is obviously inconsiderable. The year of Mars consists of 668 Martian days. The inclination of the axis of rotation of this globe upon the plane of its orbit is much the same as our own. In[Pg 135] consequence, its seasons are analogous to ours in intensity, while twice the length, the Martian year being almost equal to two of our years.

Since the invention of the telescope, a considerable number of drawings have been made, depicting Mars under every aspect, and the agreement between these numerous observations gives us a sufficient acquaintance with the planet to admit of our indicating the characteristic features of its geography, and of drawing out areographic maps (Ares, Mars).

Two small moons (hardly larger than the city of Paris) revolve rapidly round Mars; they are called Phobos and Deimos. The former, at a distance of[Pg 143] 6,000 kilometers (3,730 miles) from the surface, accomplishes its revolution rapidly, in seven hours, thirty-nine minutes, and thus makes the entire circle of the Heavens three times a day. The second gravitates at 20,000 kilometers (12,400 miles), and turns round its center of attraction in thirty hours and eighteen minutes. These two satellites were discovered by Mr. Hall, at the University of Washington, in the month of August, 1877.


Among the finest and most interesting of the celestial phenomena admired by the Martians, at certain epochs of the year,—now at night when the Sun has plunged into his fiery bed, now in the morning, a little before the aurora,—is a magnificent star of first magnitude, never far removed from the orb of day, which presents to them the same aspects as does Venus to ourselves. This splendid orb, which has doubtless received the most flattering names from those who contemplate it, this radiant star of a beautiful greenish blue, courses in space accompanied by a little satellite, sparkling like some splendid diamond, after sunset, in the clear sky of Mars. This superb orb is the Earth, and the little star accompanying it is the Moon.

Yes, to the Martians our Earth is a star of the morning and evening.

We must not dally upon Mars, but hasten our celestial excursion toward Jupiter.


[Pg 146]

CHAPTER VI

THE PLANETS

B.—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

Before we attack the giant world of our system, we must halt for a few moments upon the minor planets which circulate between the orbit of Mars and that of Jupiter. These minute asters are little worlds, the largest of which measures scarcely more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) in diameter.

The first minor planet was discovered on the first day of the nineteenth century, January 1, 1801, by Piazzi, astronomer at Palermo. While he was observing the small stars in the constellation of the Bull beneath the clear Sicilian skies, this famous astronomer noticed one that he had never seen before.

The next night, directing his telescope to the same part of the Heavens, he perceived that the fair unknown had moved her station, and the observations of the following days left him no doubt as to the nature of the visitor: she was a planet, a wandering star among the constellations, revolving round the Sun. This newcomer was registered under the name of Ceres.

Since that epoch several hundreds of them have been discovered, occupying a zone that extends over a space of more than 400 million kilometers (249,000,000 miles). These celestial globules are invisible to the naked eye, but no year passes without new and numerous recruits being added to the already important catalogue of these minute asters by the patient observers of the Heavens. To-day, they are most frequently discovered by the photographic method of following the displacement of the tiny moving points upon an exposed sensitive plate.

[Pg 148]

JUPITER

And now let us bow respectfully before Jupiter, the giant of the worlds. This glorious planet is indeed King of the Solar System.

While Mercury measures only 4,750 kilometers (2,946 miles) in diameter, and Mars 6,728 kilometers (4,172), Jupiter is no less than 140,920 kilometers (87,400 miles) in breadth; that is to say, eleven times larger than the Earth. He is 442,500 kilometers (274,357 miles) in circumference.

In volume he is equivalent to 1,279 terrestrial globes; hence he is only a million times smaller than the Sun. The previously described planets of our system, Mercury, Venus, the Earth, and Mars combined, would form only an insignificant mass in comparison with this colossus. A hundred and twenty-six Earths joined into one group would present a surface whose extent would still not be quite as vast as the superficies of this titanic world. This immense globe weighs 310 times more than that which we inhabit. Its density is only the quarter of our own; but weight is twice and a half times as great there as here. The constituents of things and beings are thus composed of materials lighter than those upon the Earth; but, as the planet exerts a force[Pg 149] of attraction twice and a half times as powerful, they are in reality heavier and weigh more. A graceful maiden weighing fifty kilograms would if transported to Jupiter immediately be included in the imposing society of the "Hundred Kilos."

Jupiter rotates upon himself with prodigious rapidity. He accomplishes his diurnal revolution in less than ten hours! There the day lasts half as long as here, and while we reckoned fifteen days upon our calendar, the Jovian would count thirty-six. As Jupiter's year equals nearly twelve of ours, the almanac of that planet would contain 10,455 days! Obviously, our pretty little pocket calendars would never serve to enumerate all the dates in this vast world.

This splendid globe courses in space at a distance of 775,000,000 kilometers (480,500,000 miles) from the Sun. Hence it is five times (5.2) as remote from the orb of day as our Earth, and its orbit is five times vaster than our own. At that distance the Sun subtends a diameter five times smaller than that which we see, and its surface is twenty-seven times less extensive; accordingly this planetary abode receives on an average twenty-seven times less light and heat than we obtain.

In the telescope Jupiter presents an aspect analogous to that likely to be exhibited by a world covered with clouds, and enveloped in dense vapors (Fig. 45).

[Pg 150]

It is, in fact, the seat of formidable perturbations, of strange revolutions by which it is perpetually convulsed, for although of more ancient formation than the Earth, this celestial giant has not yet arrived at the stable condition of our dwelling-place. Owing to its considerable volume, this globe has probably preserved its original heat, revolving in space as an obscure Sun, but perhaps still burning. In it we see what our own planet must have been in its primordial epoch, in the pristine times of terrestrial genesis.

Since its orbital revolution occupies nearly twelve years, Jupiter comes back into opposition with the Sun every 399 days, i.e., 1 year, 34 days, that is with one month and four days' delay each year. At these periods it is located at the extremity of a straight line which, passing by the Earth, is prolonged to the Sun. These are the epochs to be selected for observation. It shines then, all night, like some dazzling star of the first magnitude, of excessive whiteness: nor can it be confounded either with Venus, more luminous still (for she is never visible at midnight, in the full South, but is South-west in the evening, or South-east in the morning), nor with Mars, whose fires are ruddy.

In the telescope, the immense planet presents a superb disk that an enlargement of forty times shows us to be the same size to all appearance as that of the Moon seen with the unaided eye. Its shape is not absolutely spherical, but spheroid—that is, flattened at the poles. The flattening is 1⁄17.

We know that the Earth's axis dips a certain quantity on the plane of her orbit, and that it is this inclination that produces the seasons. Now it is not the same for Jupiter. His axis of rotation remains almost vertical throughout the course of his year, and results in the complete absence of climates and seasons. There is neither glacial zone, nor tropic zone; the position of[Pg 152] Jupiter is eternally that of the Earth at the season of the equinox, and the vast world enjoys, as it were, perpetual spring. It knows neither the hoar-frost nor the snows of winter. The heat received from the Sun diminishes gradually from the equator to the poles without abrupt transitions, and the duration of day and night is equal there throughout the entire year, under every latitude. A privileged world, indeed!

It is surrounded by a very dense, thick atmosphere, which undergoes more extensive variations than could be produced by the Sun at such a distance. Spectral analysis detects a large amount of water-vapor, showing that this planet still possesses a very considerable quantity of intrinsic heat.

Most conspicuous upon this globe are the larger or smaller bands or markings (gray and white, sometimes tinted yellow, or of a maroon or chocolate hue) by which its surface is streaked, particularly in the vicinity of the equator. These different belts vary, and are constantly modified, either in form or color. Sometimes, they are irregular, and cut up; at others they are interspersed with more or less brilliant patches. These patches are not affixed to the surface of the globe, like the seas and continents of the Earth; nor do they circulate round the planet like the satellites, in more or less elongated and regular revolutions, but are relatively mobile, like[Pg 153] our clouds in the atmosphere, while observation of their motion does not give the exact period of the rotation of Jupiter. Some only appear upon the agitated disk to vanish very quickly; others subsist for a considerable period.

One has been observed for over a quarter of a century, and appears to be almost immobile upon this colossal globe. This spot, which was red at its first appearance, is now pale and ghostly. It is oval (vide Fig. 45) and measures 42,000 kilometers (26,040 miles) in length by 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) in width. Hence it is about four times as long as the diameter of our Earth; that is, relatively to the size of Jupiter, as are the dimensions of Australia in proportion to our globe. The discussion of a larger number of observations leads us to see in it a sort of continent in the making, a scoria recently ejected from the mobile and still liquid and heated surface of the giant Jupiter. The patch, however, oscillates perceptibly, and appears to be a floating island.

We must add that this vast world, like the Sun, does not rotate all in one period. Eight different currents can be perceived upon its surface. The most rapid is that of the equatorial zone, which accomplishes its revolution in 9 hours, 50 minutes, 29 seconds. A point situated on the equator is therefore carried forward at a speed of 12,500 meters (7 miles) per second, and it is this giddy[Pg 154] velocity of Jupiter that has produced the flattening of the poles. From the equator to the poles, the swiftness of the currents diminishes irregularly, and the difference amounts to about five minutes between the movement of the equatorial stream, and that of the northern and southern currents. But what is more curious still is that the velocity of one and the same stream is subject to certain fluctuations; thus, in the last quarter of a century, the speed of the equatorial current has progressively diminished. In 1879, the velocity was 9 hours, 49 minutes, 59 seconds, and now it is, as we have already seen, 9 hours, 50 minutes, 29 seconds, which represents a substantial reduction. The rotation of the red patch, at 25 degrees of the southern latitude, is effected in 9 hours, 55 minutes, 40 seconds.

We are confronted with a strange and mysterious world. It is the world of the future.

This giant gravitates in space accompanied by a suite of five satellites. These are:


Names.
Distance from surface of Jupiter.
Time of revolution.
Kilometers.
Miles.
Days.
Hours.
5.
200,000
124,000
  11
1. Io
430,000
266,000
1 18
2. Europa
682,000
422,840
3 13
3. Ganymede
1,088,000
674,560
7 4
4. Callisto
1,914,000
1,186,680
16 16

The four principal satellites of Jupiter were discovered at the same time, on the same evenings [Pg 155](January 7 and 8, 1610), by the two astronomers who were pointing their telescopes at Jupiter: Galileo in Italy, and Simon Marius in Germany.

On September 9, 1892, Mr. Barnard, astronomer of the Lick Observatory, California, discovered a new satellite, extremely minute, and very near the enormous planet. It has so far received no name, and is known as the fifth, although the four principal are numbered in the order of their distances.

The four classical satellites are visible in the smallest instruments (Fig. 46): the third is the most voluminous.

Such is the splendid system of the mighty Jupiter. Once, doubtless, this fine planet illuminated the troop of worlds that derived their treasure of vitality from him with his intrinsic light: to-day, however, these moons in their turn shed upon the extinct central globe the pale soft light which they receive from our solar focus,[Pg 156] illuminating the brief Jovian nights (which last less than five hours, on account of the twilight) with their variable brilliancy.

At the distance of the first satellite, Jupiter exhibits a disk fourteen hundred times vaster than that of the Full Moon! What a dazzling spectacle, what a scene must the enormous star afford to the inhabitants of that tiny world! And what a shabby figure must our Earth and Moon present in the face of such a body, a real miniature of the great solar system!

Let us repeat in conclusion that our Earth becomes practically invisible for the inhabitants of the other worlds beyond the distance of Jupiter.

SATURN

Turn back now for a moment to the plan of the Solar System.

We had to cross 775 million kilometers (480,000,000 miles) when we left the Sun, in order to reach the [Pg 157]immense orb of Jupiter, which courses in space at 626 million kilometers (388,000,000 miles) from the terrestrial orbit. From Jupiter we had to traverse a distance of 646 million kilometers (400,000,000 miles) in order to reach the marvelous system of Saturn, where our eyes and thoughts must next alight.

The revolution of Saturn is the slowest of any among the planets known to the ancients. It takes almost thirty years for its accomplishment, and at that distance the Saturnian world, though it still shines with the brilliancy of a star of the first magnitude, exhibits to our eyes a pale and leaden hue. Here is, indeed, a slow and almost funereal gait.

Poor Saturn won no favor with the poets and astrologers. He bore the horrid reputation of being the inexhaustible source of misfortune and evil fates,—whereof he is wholly innocent, troubling himself not at all with our world nor its inhabitants.

This world travels in the vastness of the Heavens at a distance of 1,421 million kilometers (881,000,000 miles)[Pg 158] from the Sun. Hence it is ten times farther from the orb of day than the Earth, though still illuminated and governed by the Sun. Its gigantic orbit is ten times larger than our own.

Its revolution round the Sun is accomplished in 10,759 days, i.e., 29 years, 167 days, and as this strange planet rotates upon itself with great rapidity in 10 hours, 15 minutes, its year comprises no less than 25,217 days. What a calendar! The Saturnians must needs have a prodigious memory not to get hopelessly involved in this interminable number of days. A curious world, where each year stands for almost thirty of our own, and where the day is more than half as short again as ours. But we shall presently find other and more extraordinary differences on this planet.

In the first place it is nearly nine and a half times larger than our world. It is a globe, not spherical, but spheroidal, and the flattening of its poles, which is one-tenth, exceeds that of all the other planets, even Jupiter. It follows that its equatorial diameter is 112,500 kilometers (69,750 miles), while its polar diameter measures only 110,000 kilometers (68,200 miles).

In volume, Saturn is 719 times larger than the Earth, but its density is only 128⁄1,000 of our own; i.e., the materials of which it is composed are much less heavy, so that it weighs only 92 times more than our Earth. Its[Pg 159] surface is 85 times vaster than that of the Earth, no insignificant proportion.

The dipping of Saturn's axis of rotation is much the same as our own. Hence we conclude that the seasons of this planet are analogous to ours in relative intensity. Only upon this far-off world each season lasts for seven years. At the distance at which it gravitates in space, the heat and light which it receives from the Sun are 90 times less active than such as reach our selves; but it apparently possesses an atmosphere of great density, which may be constituted so that the heat is preserved, and the planet maintained in a calorific condition but little inferior to our own.

In the telescope, the disk of Saturn exhibits large belts that recall those of Jupiter, though they are broader[Pg 160] and less accentuated (Fig. 47). There are doubtless zones of clouds or rapid currents circulating in the atmosphere. Spots are also visible whose displacement assists in calculating the diurnal motions of this globe.

The most extraordinary characteristic of this strange world is, however, the existence of a vast ring, which is almost flat and very large, and entirely envelops the body of the planet. It is suspended in the Saturnian sky, like a gigantic triumphal arch, at a height of some 20,000 kilometers (12,400 miles) above the equator. This splendid arch is circular, like an immense crown illuminated by the Sun. From here we only see it obliquely, and it appears to us elliptical; a part of the ring seems to pass in front of Saturn, and its shadow is visible on the planet, while the opposite part passes behind.

This ring, which measures 284,000 kilometers (176,080 miles) in diameter, and less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) in breadth, is divided into three distinct zones: the exterior is less luminous than the center, which is always brighter than the planet itself; the interior is very dark, and spreads out like a dusky and faintly transparent veil, through which Saturn can be distinguished.

What is the nature of these vast concentric circles that surround the planet with a luminous halo? They[Pg 161] are composed of an innumerable number of particles, of a quantity of cosmic fragments, which are swept off in a rapid revolution, and gravitate round the planet at variable speed and distance. The nearer particles must accomplish their revolution in 5 hours, 50 minutes, and the most distant in about 12 hours, 5 minutes, to prevent them from being merged in the surface of Saturn: their own centrifugal force sustains them in space.

With a good glass the effect of these rings is most striking, and one can not refrain from emotion on contemplating this marvel, whereby one of the brothers of our terrestrial country is crowned with a golden diadem.[Pg 162] Its aspects vary with its perspective relative to the Earth, as may be seen from the subjoined figure (Fig. 48).

We must not quit the Saturnian province without mentioning the eight satellites that form his splendid suite:


Names.
Distance from the planet.
Time of revolution.
Kilometers.
Miles.
Days.
Hours.
Minutes.
1. Mimas
207,000
128,340   22 37
2. Enceladus
257,600
159,712 1 8 53
3. Tethys
328,800
203,856 1 21 18
4. Dione
421,200
261,144 2 17 41
5. Rhea
588,400
364,808 4 12 25
6. Titan
1,364,000
845,680 15 22 41
7. Hyperion
1,650,000
1,023,000 21 6 39
8. Japhet
3,964,000
2,457,680 79 7 54

Here is a marvelous system, with, what is more, eight different kinds of months for the inhabitants of Saturn; eight moons with constantly varying phases juggling above the rings!

Now we shall cross at a bound the 1,400 million kilometers (868,000,000 miles) that separate us from the last station but one of the immense solar system.

URANUS

On March 13, 1781, William Herschel, a Hanoverian astronomer who had emigrated to England, having abandoned the study of music to devote himself to the sublime science of the Heavens, was observing the vast[Pg 163] fields with their constellations of golden stars, when he perceived a luminous point that appeared to him to exceed that of the other celestial luminaries in diameter. He replaced the magnification of his telescope by more powerful eye-pieces, and found that the apparent diameter of the orb increased proportionately with the amplification of the power, which does not happen in the case of stars at infinite distance. His observations on the following evenings enabled him to note the slow and imperceptible movement of this star upon the celestial sphere, and left him in no further doubt: there was no star, but some much nearer orb, in all probability a comet, for the great astronomer dared not predict the discovery of a new planet. And it was thus, under the name of cometary orb, that the seventh child of the Sun was announced. The astronomers sought to determine the motions of the new arrival, to discover for it an elliptical orbit such as most comets have. But their efforts were vain, and after several months' study the conclusion was reached that here was a new planet, throwing back the limits of the solar system to a point far beyond that of the Saturnian frontier, as admitted from antiquity.

This new world received the name of Uranus. Uranus shines in the firmament as a small star of[Pg 164] sixth magnitude, invisible to the unaided eye for normal sight, at a distance of 2,831,000,000 kilometers (1,755,000,000 miles) from the Sun. Smaller than Jupiter and Saturn, this planet is yet larger than Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the Earth together, thus presenting proportions that claim our respect and admiration.

His diameter may be taken at about 55,000 kilometers (34,200 miles), that is, rather more than four times the breadth of the terrestrial diameter. Sixty-nine times more voluminous than the Earth, and seventeen times more extensive in surface, this new world is much less than our own in density. The matter of which it is composed is nearly five times lighter than that of our globe.

Spectral analysis shows that this distant planet is surrounded with an atmosphere very different from that which we breathe, enclosing gases that do not exist in ours.

The Uranian globe courses over the fields of infinity in a vast orbit seventeen times larger than our own, and its revolution lasts 36,688 days, i.e., 84 years, 8 days. It travels slowly and sadly under the pale and languishing rays of the Sun, which sends it nearly three hundred times less of light and heat than we receive. At this distance the solar disk would present a diameter seventeen times smaller than that which we admire, and a[Pg 165] surface three hundred times less vast. A dull world indeed! And what an interminable year! The idle people who are in the habit of being bored must find time even longer upon Uranus than upon our little Earth, where the days pass so rapidly. And if matters are arranged there as here, a babe of a year old, beginning to babble in its nurse's arms, would already have lived as long as an old man of eighty-four in this world.

But what most seriously complicates the Calendar of the Uranians is the fact that the four moons which accompany the planet accomplish their revolution in four different kinds of months, in two, four, eight, and thirteen days, as is shown in the following table:


Distance from the planet.
Time of revolution.
Kilometers.
Miles.
Days.
Hours.
Minutes.
1. Ariel 196,000 121,520 2 12 29
2. Umbriel 276,000 171,120 4 3 27
3. Titania 450,000 279,000 8 16 56
4. Oberon 600,000 372,000 13 11 7

The most curious fact is that these satellites do not rotate like those of the other planets. While the moons of the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn accomplish their revolution from east to west, the satellites of Uranus rotate in a plane almost perpendicular to the ecliptic, and it is doubtless the same for the rotation of the planet.

If we had to quit the Earth, and fixate ourselves upon[Pg 166] another world, we should prefer Mars to Uranus, where everything must be so different from terrestrial arrangements? But who knows? Perhaps, after all, this planet might afford us some agreeable surprises. Il ne faut jurer de rien.

NEPTUNE

And here we reach the frontier of the Solar System, as actually known to us. In landing on the world of Neptune, which circles through the Heavens in eternal twilight at a distance of more than four milliard kilometers (2,480,000,000 miles) from the common center of attraction of the planetary orbs, we once again admire the prodigies of science.

Uranus was discovered with the telescope, Neptune by calculation. In addition to the solar influence, the worlds exert a mutual attraction upon each other that slightly deranges the harmony ordered by the Sun. The stronger act upon the weaker, and the colossal Jupiter alone causes many of the perturbations in our great solar family. Now during regular observations of the position of Uranus in space, some inexplicable irregularities were soon perceived. The astronomers having full faith in the universality of the law of attraction, could not do otherwise than attribute these irregularities[Pg 167] to the influence of some unknown planet situated even farther off. But at what distance?

A very simple proportion, known as Bode's law, has been observed, which indicates approximately the relative distances of the planets from the Sun. It is as follows: Starting from 0, write the number 3, and double successively,

0  3  6  12  24  48  96  192  384.

Then, add the number 4 to each of the preceding figures, which gives the following series:

4  7  10  16  28  52  100  196  388.

Now it is a very curious fact that if the distance between the Earth and the Sun be represented by 10, the figure 4 represents the orbit of Mercury, 7 that of Venus, 16 of Mars; the figure 28 stands for the medium distance of the minor planets; the distances of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus agree with 52, 100, and 196.

The French mathematician Le Verrier, who pursued the solution of the Uranian problem, supposed naturally that the disturbing planet must be at the distance of 388, and made his calculations accordingly. Its direction in the Heavens was indicated by the form of the disturbances; the orbit of Uranus bulging, as it were, on the side of the disturbing factor.

On August 31, 1846, Le Verrier announced the position of the ultra-Uranian planet, and on September[Pg 168] 23d following, a German astronomer, Galle, at the Observatory of Berlin, who had just received this intelligence, pointed his telescope toward the quarter of the Heavens designated, and, in fact, attested the presence of the new orb. Without quitting his study table, Le Verrier, by the sole use of mathematics, had detected, and, as it were, touched at pen's point the mysterious stranger.

Only, it is proved by observation and calculation that it is less remote than was expected from the preceding law, for it gravitates at a distance of 300, given that from the Earth to the Sun as 10.

This planet was called Neptune.

Neptune is separated by a distance of four milliards, four hundred million kilometers from the solar center.

At such a distance, thirty times greater than that which exists between the Sun and our world, Neptune receives nine hundred times less light and heat than ourselves; i.e., Spitzbergen and the polar regions of our globe are furnaces compared with what must be the Neptunian temperature. Absolutely invisible to the unaided eye, this world presents in the telescope the aspect of a star of the eighth magnitude. With powerful magnifications it is possible to measure its disk, which appears to be slightly tinged with blue. Its diameter is four times larger than our own, and measures about 48,000 kilometers (29,900 miles), its surface is sixteen times vaster than that of the Earth, and to attain its volume we should have to put together fifty-five globes similar to our own. Weight at its surface must be about the same as here, but its medium density is only 1⁄3 that of the Earth.

It gravitates slowly, dragging itself along an orbit thirty times vaster than that of our globe, and its revolution takes 164 years, 281 days, i.e., 164 years, 9 months. A single year of Neptune thus covers several generations[Pg 170] of terrestrial life. Existence must, indeed, be strange in that tortoise-footed world!

While in their rotation period, Mercury accomplishes 47 kilometers (293⁄8 miles) per second, and the Earth 291⁄2 (181⁄8 miles), Neptune rolls along his immense orbit at a rate of only 51⁄2 kilometers (about 31⁄4 miles) per second.

The vast distance that separates us prevents our distinguishing any details of his surface, but spectral analysis reveals the presence of an absorbent atmosphere in which are gases unknown to the air of our planet, and of which the chemical composition resembles that of the atmosphere of Uranus.

One satellite has been discovered for Neptune. It has a considerable inclination, and rotates from east to west.


And here we have reached the goal of our interplanetary journey. After visiting the vast provinces of the solar republic, we feel yet greater admiration and gratitude toward the luminary that governs, warms, and illuminates the worlds of his system.

In conclusion, let us again insist that the Earth,—a splendid orb as viewed from Mercury, Venus, and Mars,—begins to disappear from Jupiter, where she becomes no more than a tiny spark oscillating from[Pg 171] side to side of the Sun, and occasionally passing in front of him as a small black dot. From Saturn the visibility of our planet is even more reduced. As to Uranus and Neptune, we are invisible there, at least to eyes constructed like our own. We do not possess in the Universe the importance with which we would endow ourselves.

Neptune up to the present guards the portals of our celestial system; we will leave him to watch over the distant frontier; but before returning to the Earth, we must glance at certain eccentric orbs, at the mad, capricious comets, which imprint their airy flight upon the realms of space.


[Pg 172]


---excerpt from the Illustrated Bible Dictionary

Astronomy - The Hebrews were devout students of the wonders of the starry firmament (Amos 5:8; Psalms 19:1). In the Book of Job, which is the oldest book of the Bible in all probability, the constellations are distinguished and named. Mention is made of the "morning star" ([[Category:The Book of Revelation#:|Revelation 2:28; compare Isaiah 14:12), the "seven stars" and "Pleiades," "Orion," "Arcturus," the "Great Bear" (Amos 5:8; Job 9:9; Job 38:31), "the crooked serpent," Draco (Job 26:13), the Dioscuri, or Gemini, "Castor and Pollux" (Acts 28:11). The stars were called "the host of heaven" (Isaiah 40:26; Jeremiah 33:22). The oldest divisions of time were mainly based on the observation of the movements of the heavenly bodies, the "ordinances of heaven" (Genesis 1:14; Job 38:33; Jeremiah 31:35; Jeremiah 33:25). Such observations led to the division of the year into months and the mapping out of the appearances of the stars into twelve portions, which received from into twelve portions, which received from the Greeks the name of the "zodiac." The word "Mazzaroth" (Job 38:32) means, as the margin notes, "the twelve signs" of the zodiac. Astronomical observations were also necessary among the Jews in order to the fixing of the proper time for sacred ceremonies, the "new moons," the "passover," etc. Many allusions are found to the display of God's wisdom and power as seen in the starry heavens (Psalms 8:1; Psalms 19:1; Isaiah 51:6, etc.)

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