Page images
PDF
EPUB

SECTION XXXV.

Comets

Ethereal Medium · -Do not disturb the Solar System - Their Orbits and Disturbances - M. Faye's Comet probably the same with Lexel's- Periods of other three known - Acceleration in the mean Motions of Encke's and Biela's Comets-The Shock of a Comet - Disturbing Action of the Earth and Planets on Encke's and Biela's Comets Velocity of Comets-The Comet of 1264-The great Comet of 1343- Physical Constitution - Shine by borrowed Light-Estimation of their Number.

IN considering the constitution of the earth, and the fluids which surround it, various subjects have presented themselves to our notice, of which some, for aught we know, are confined to the planet we inhabit; some are common to it and to the other bodies of our system. But an all-pervading ether must fill the whole visible creation, since it conveys, in the form of light, tremors which may have been excited in the deepest recesses of the universe thousands of years before we were called into being. The existence of such a medium, though at first hypothetical, is proved by the undulatory theory of light, and rendered certain by the motion of comets, and by its action upon the vapours of which they are chiefly composed. It has often been imagined that the tails of comets have infused new substances into our atmosphere. Possibly the earth may attract some of that nebulous matter, since the vapours raised by the sun's heat, when the comets are in perihelio, and which form their tails, are scattered through space in their passage to their aphelion; but it has hitherto produced no effect, nor have the seasons ever been influenced by these bodies. The light of the comet of the year 1811, which was so brilliant, did not impart any heat even when condensed on the bulb of a thermometer of a structure so delicate that it would have made the hundredth part of a degree evident. In all probability, the tails of comets may have passed over the earth without its inhabitants being conscious of their presence; and there is reason to believe that the tail of the great comet of 1843 did so. M. Valz observed that the light of a brilliant

comet was eclipsed as it passed over a star of the 7th magnitude, whence M. Babinet computed that the light of the comet must have been sixty times less than that of the star, and that matter so attenuated could not penetrate the earth's atmosphere, but the constitution of these bodies is still a matter of conjecture. The passage of comets has never sensibly disturbed the stability of the solar system; their nucleus, being in general only a mass of vapour, is so rare, and their transit so rapid, even when they had a solid part, that the time has not been long enough to admit of a sufficient accumulation of impetus to produce a perceptible action. Indeed, M. Dusejour has shown that, under the most favourable circumstances, a comet cannot remain longer than two hours and a half at a less distance from the earth than 10,500 leagues. The comet of 1770 passed within about six times the distance of the moon from the earth, without even affecting our tides. According to La Place, the action of the earth on the comet of 1770 augmented the period of its revolution by more than two days; and, if comets had any perceptible disturbing energy, the reaction of the comet ought to have increased the length of our year. Had the mass of that comet been equal to the mass of the earth, its disturbing action would have increased the length of the sidereal year by 2h 53m; but, as Delambre's computations from the Greenwich observations of the sun show that the length of the year has not been increased by the fraction of a second, its mass could not have been equal to the 5th part of that of the earth. This accounts for the same comet having twice swept through the system of Jupiter's satellites without deranging the motion of these moons. M. Dusejour has computed that a comet, equal in mass to the earth, passing at the distance of 12,150 leagues from our planet, would increase the length of the year to 367d 16h 5m, and the obliquity of the ecliptic as much as 2°. So the principal action of comets would be to alter the calendar, even if they were dense enough to affect the earth.

Comets traverse all parts of the heavens; their paths have every possible inclination to the plane of the ecliptic, and, unlike the planets, the motion of more than half of those that have appeared has been retrograde, that is, from east to west. They are only visible when near their perihelia; then their velocity is such, that its square is twice as great as that of a body moving in a circle at the same distance: they consequently remain but a

very short time within the planetary orbits. And, as all the conic sections of the same focal distance sensibly coincide, through a small arc, on each side of the extremity of their axis, it is difficult to ascertain in which of these curves the comets move, from observations made, as they necessarily must be, near their perihelia (N. 227). Probably they all move in extremely excentric ellipses; although, in most cases, the parabolic curve coincides most nearly with their observed motions. Some few seem to describe hyperbolas; such, being once visible to us, would vanish for ever, to wander through boundless space, to the remote systems of the universe. If a planet be supposed to revolve in a circular orbit, whose radius is equal to the perihelion distance of a comet moving in a parabola, the areas described by these two bodies in the same time will be as unity to the square root of two, which forms such a connexion between the motion of comets and planets, that, by Kepler's law, the ratio of the areas described during the same time by the comet and the earth may be found; so that the place of a comet may be computed at any time in its parabolic orbit, estimated from the instant of its passage at the perihelion. It is a problem of very great difficulty to determine all the other elements of parabolic motion-namely, the comet's perihelion distance, or shortest distance from the sun, estimated in parts of the mean distance of the earth from the sun; the longitude of the perihelion; the inclination of the orbit on the plane of the ecliptic; and the longitude of the ascending node. Three observed longitudes and latitudes of a comet are sufficient for computing the approximate values of these quantities; but an accurate estimation of them can only be obtained by successive corrections, from a number of observations, distant from one another. When the motion of a comet is retrograde, the place of the ascending node is exactly opposite to what it is when the motion is direct. Hence the place of the ascending node, together with the direction of the comet's motion, show whether the inclination of the orbit is on the north or south side of the plane of the ecliptic. If the motion be direct, the inclination is on the north side; if retrograde, it is on the south side.

The identity of the elements is the only proof of the return of a comet to our system. Should the elements of a new comet be the same, or nearly the same, with those of any one previously known, the probability of the identity of the two bodies is very

great, since the similarity extends to no less than four elements, every one of which is capable of an infinity of variations. But, even if the orbit be determined with all the accuracy the case admits of, it may be difficult, or even impossible, to recognize a comet on its return, because its orbit would be very much changed if it passed near any of the large planets of this or of any other system, in consequence of their disturbing energy, which would be very great on bodies of so rare a nature.

By far the most curious and interesting instance of the disturbing action of the great bodies of our system is found in the comet of 1770. The elements of its orbit, determined by Messier, did not agree with those of any comet that had hitherto been computed, yet Lexel ascertained that it described an ellipse about the sun, whose major axis was only equal to three times the length of the diameter of the terrestrial orbit, and consequently that it must return to the sun at intervals of five years and a half. This result was confirmed by numerous observations, as the comet was visible through an arc of 170°; yet this comet had never been observed before the year 1770, nor has it ever again been seen till 1843, though very brilliant. The disturbing action of the larger planets affords a solution of this anomaly, as Lexel ascertained that in 1767 the comet must have passed Jupiter at a distance less than the fifty-eighth part of its distance from the sun, and that in 1779 it would be 500 times nearer Jupiter than the sun; consequently the action of the sun on the comet would not be the fiftieth part of what it would experience from Jupiter, so that Jupiter became the primum mobile. Assuming the orbit to be such as Lexel had determined in 1770, La Place found that the action of Jupiter, previous to the year 1770, had so completely changed the form of it, that the comet which had been invisible to us before 1770 was then brought into view, and that the action of the same planet, producing a contrary effect, has subsequently to that year removed it from our sight, since it was computed to be revolving in an orbit whose perihelion was beyond the orbit of Ceres. However, the action of Jupiter during the summer of 1840 must have been so great, from his proximity to that singular body, that he seems to have brought it back to its former path as he had done in 1767, for the elements of the orbit of a comet which was discovered in November 1843, by M. Faye, agree so nearly with those of the orbit of Lexel's comet

R

that the two bodies were supposed to be identical; by the subsequent computation of M. le Verrier, it appears, however, that they are not the same, that they were both brought to our system by Jupiter's attraction, and that they have been in it more than a century, and have frequently come near the earth without having been seen. From the smallness of the excentricity of Lexel's comet, the orbit resembles those of the planets, but this comet is liable to greater perturbations than any other body in the system, because it comes very near the orbit of Mars when in perihelion, and very near that of Jupiter when in aphelion; besides, it passes within a comparatively small distance of the orbits of the minor planets; and as it will continue to cross the orbit of Jupiter at each revolution till the two bodies meet, its periodic time, now about seven years, will again be changed, but in the mean time it ought to have returned to its perihelion in the year 1851. This comet might have been seen from the earth in 1776, had its light not been eclipsed by that of the sun. There is still so much doubt with regard to Lexel's comet that during the present year, 1858, M. le Verrier has constructed a table of all the orbits in which the comet may have moved after leaving Jupiter in 1770, which will enable astronomers to recognise the comet even should the elements of its orbit be much altered. He thinks it possible that its path may have become hyperbolic, but that it is more likely an augmentation of its periodic time may have taken place. It is quite possible that comets frequenting our system may be turned away, or others brought to the sun, by the attraction of planets revolving beyond the orbit of Neptune, or by bodies still farther removed from the solar influence.

Other comets, liable to less disturbance, return to the sun at stated intervals. Halley computed the elements of the orbit of a comet that appeared in the year 1682, which agreed so nearly with those of the comets of 1607 and 1531, that he concluded it to be the same body returning to the sun at intervals of about seventy-five years. He consequently predicted its reappearance in the year 1758, or in the beginning of 1759. Science was not sufficiently advanced in the time of Halley to enable him to determine the perturbations this comet might experience; but Clairaut computed that, in consequence of the attraction of Jupiter and Saturn, its periodic time would be so much shorter than during its revolution between 1607 and 1682,

« PreviousContinue »