Page images

That part of the disturbing force is now to be considered which acts perpendicularly to the plane of the orbit, causing periodic perturbations in latitude, secular variations in the inclination of the orbit, and a retrograde motion to its nodes on the true plane of the ecliptic (N. 71). This force tends to pull the disturbed body above, or push (N. 72) it below, the plane of its orbit, according to the relative positions of the two planets with regard to the sun, considered to be fixed. By this action, it sometimes makes the plane of the orbit of the disturbed body tend to coincide with the plane of the ecliptic, and sometimes increases its inclination to that plane. In consequence of which, its nodes alternately recede or advance on the ecliptic (N. 73). When the disturbing planet is in the line of the disturbed planet's nodes (N. 74), it neither affects these points, the latitude, nor the inclination, because both planets are then in the same plane. When it is at right angles to the line of the nodes, and the orbit symmetrical on each side of the disturbing force, the average motion of these points, after a revolution of the disturbed body, is retrograde, and comparatively rapid: but, when the disturbing planet is so situated that the orbit of the disturbed planet is not symmetrical on each side of the disturbing force, which is most frequently the case, every possible variety of action takes place. Consequently, the nodes are perpetually advancing or receding with unequal velocity; but, as a compensation is not effected, their motion is, on the whole, retrograde.

With regard to the variations in the inclination, it is clear, that, when the orbit is symmetrical on each side of the disturbing force, all its variations are compensated after a revolution of the disturbed body, and are merely periodical perturbations in the planet's latitude; and no secular change is induced in the inclination of the orbit. When, on the contrary, that orbit is not symmetrical on each side of the disturbing force, although many of the variations in latitude are transient or periodical, still, after a complete revolution of the disturbed body, a portion remains uncompensated, which forms a secular change in the inclination of the orbit to the plane of the ecliptic. It is true, part of this secular change in the inclination is compensated by the revolution of the disturbing body, whose motion has not hitherto been taken into the account, so that perturbation compensates perturbation; but still a comparatively per

manent change is effected in the inclination, which is not compensated till the nodes have accomplished a complete revolution.

The changes in the inclination are extremely minute (N. 75), compared with the motion of the nodes, and there is the same kind of inseparable connection between their secular changes that there is between the variation of the excentricity and the motion of the major axis. The nodes and inclinations vary simultaneously; their periods are the same, and very great. The nodes of Jupiter's orbit, from the action of Saturn alone, require 36,261 years to accomplish even a tropical revolution. In what precedes, the influence of only one disturbing body has been considered; but, when the action and reaction of the whole system are taken into account, every planet is acted upon, and does itself act, in this manner, on all the others; and the joint effect keeps the inclinations and excentricities in a state of perpetual variation. It makes the major axes of all the orbits continually revolve, and causes, on an average, a retrograde motion of the nodes of each orbit upon every other. The ecliptic (N. 71) itself is in motion from the mutual action of the earth and planets, so that the whole is a compound phenomenon of great complexity, extending through unknown ages. At the present time the inclinations of all the orbits are decreasing, but so slowly, that the inclination of Jupiter's orbit is only about six minutes less than it was in the age of Ptolemy.

But, in the midst of all these vicissitudes, the length of the major axes and the mean motions of the planets remain permanently independent of secular changes. They are so connected by Kepler's law, of the squares of the periodic times being proportional to the cubes of the mean distances of the planets from the sun, that one cannot vary without affecting the other. And it is proved, that any variations which do take place are transient, and depend only on the relative positions of the bodies.

It is true that, according to theory, the radial disturbing force should permanently alter the dimensions of all the orbits, and the periodic times of all the planets, to a certain degree. For example, the masses of all the planets revolving within the orbit of any one, such as Mars, by adding to the interior mass, increase the attracting force of the sun, which, therefore, must contract the dimensions of the orbit of that planet, and diminish its periodic time; whilst the planets exterior to Mars's orbit must

have the contrary effect. But the mass of the whole of the planets and satellites taken together is so small, when compared with that of the sun, that these effects are quite insensible, and could only have been discovered by theory. And, as it is certain that the length of the major axes and the mean motions are not permanently changed by any other power whatever, it may be concluded that they are invariable.

With the exception of these two elements, it appears that all the bodies are in motion, and every orbit in a state of perpetual change. Minute as these changes are, they might be supposed to accumulate in the course of ages, sufficiently to derange the whole order of nature, to alter the relative positions of the planets, to put an end to the vicissitudes of the seasons, and to bring about collisions which would involve our whole system, now so harmonious, in chaotic confusion. It is natural to inquire, what proof exists that nature will be preserved from such a catastrophe ? Nothing can be known from observation, since the existence of the human race has occupied comparatively but a point in duration, while these vicissitudes embrace myriads of ages. The proof is simple and conclusive. All the variations of the solar system, secular as well as periodic, are expressed analytically by the sines and cosines of circular arcs (N. 76), which increase with the time; and, as a sine or cosine can never exceed the radius, but must oscillate between zero and unity, however much the time may increase, it follows that when the variations have accumulated to a maximum by slow changes, in however long a time, they decrease, by the same slow degrees, till they arrive at their smallest value, again to begin a new course; thus for ever oscillating about a mean value. This circumstance, however, would be insufficient, were it not for the small excentricities of the planetary orbits, their minute inclinations to the plane of the ecliptic, and the revolutions of all the bodies, as well planets as satellites, in the same direction. These secure the perpetual stability of the solar system (N. 77). However, at the time that the stability was proved by La Grange and La Place, the telescopic planets between Mars and Jupiter had not been discovered; but La Grange, having investigated the subject under a very general point of view, showed that, if a planetary system be composed of very unequal masses, the whole of the larger would maintain an unalterable stability with regard to the form and


position of their orbits, while the orbits of the lesser might undergo unlimited changes. M. Le Verrier has applied this to the solar system, and has found that the orbits of all the larger planets will for ever maintain an unalterable stability in form and position; for, though liable to mutations of very long periods, they return again exactly to what they originally were, oscillating between very narrow limits; but he found a zone of instability between the orbit of Mars, and twice the mean distance of the earth from the sun,' or between 1.5 and 2:00; therefore the position and form of the orbits of such of the telescopic planets as revolve within that zone will be subject to unlimited variations. But the orbits of those more remote from the sun than Flora, or beyond 2.20, will be stable, so that their excentricities and inclinations must always have been, and will always remain, very great, since they must have depended upon the primitive conditions that prevailed when these planetary atoms were launched into space. The 51st of these small bodies, which was discovered, and the elements of its orbit determined, by M. Valz, at Nimes, has a mean distance of 1.88; so it revolves within the zone of instability. It has a shorter periodic time than any of those previously discovered, and a greater excentricity, with the exception of Nysa. Its orbit cuts that of Mars, and comes nearer to the earth than the orbits of either Mars or Venus, a circumstance which would be favourable for correcting the parallax of the sun, or confirming its accuracy. The telescopic planets, numerous as they are, have no influence on the motions of the larger planets, for Jupiter has a diameter of 90,734 miles, while that of Pallas, his nearest neighbour, is only 97 miles, little more than the distance from London to Bath. The diameter of Mars, on the other side of the small planets, is 4546 miles, and that of the earth 7925 miles, so that the telescopic group are too minute to disturb the others. M. Le Verrier found another zone of instability between Venus and the sun, on the border of which Mercury is revolving, the inclination of whose orbit to the plane of the ecliptic is about 7o, which is more than that of any of the large planets. Neptune's

* The mean distance of the earth from the sun is 95,000,000 miles, but to avoid the inconvenience of large numbers, it is assumed to be the unit of distance; hence the mean distance of Mars is 1.52369, or 1.5 nearly, that of the earth being =1.

orbit is, no doubt, as stable as that of any other of the large planets, as the inclination is very small, but he will have periodical variations of very long duration from the reciprocal attraction between him and Uranus, one especially of an enormous duration, similar to those of Jupiter and Saturn, and, like them, depending on the time of his revolution round the sun, being nearly twice as long as that of Saturn. Mr. Adams has computed that Neptune produces a periodical perturbation in the motion of Uranus, whose duration is about 6800 years.

The equilibrium of the system, however, would be deranged if the planets moved in a resisting medium (N. 78) sufficiently dense to diminish their tangential velocity, for then both the excentricities and the major axes of the orbits would vary with the time, so that the stability of the system would be ultimately destroyed. The existence of an ethereal medium is now proved; and, although it is so extremely rare that hitherto its effects on the motions of the planets have been altogether insensible, there can be no doubt that, in the immensity of time, it will modify the forms of the planetary orbits, and may at last even cause the destruction of our system, which in itself contains no principle of decay, unless a rotatory motion from west to east has been given to this medium by the bodies of the solar system, which have all been revolving about the sun in that direction for unknown ages. This rotation, which seems to be highly probable, may even have been coeval with its creation. Such a vortex would have no effect on bodies moving with it, but it would influence the motions of those revolving in a contrary direction. It is possible that the disturbances experienced by comets, which have already revealed the existence of this medium, may also, in time, disclose its rotatory motion.

The form and position of the planetary orbits, and the motion of the bodies in the same direction, together with the periodicity of the terms in which the inequalities are expressed, assure us that the variations of the system are confined within very narrow limits, and that, although we do not know the extent of the limits, nor the period of that grand cycle which probably embraces millions of years, yet they never will exceed what is requisite for the stability and harmony of the whole; for the preservation of which every circumstance is so beautifully and wonderfully adapted.

« PreviousContinue »