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Astronomy of To-day By Cecil G. Dolmage Characters: 14206

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

We have seen, in the course of the last chapter, that the solar system is composed as follows:-there is a central body, the sun, around which revolve along stated paths a number of important bodies known as planets. Certain of these planets, in their courses, carry along in company still smaller bodies called satellites, which revolve around them. With regard, however, to the remaining members of the system, viz. the comets and the meteors, it is not advisable at this stage to add more to what has been said in the preceding chapter. For the time being, therefore, we will devote our attention merely to the sun, the planets, and the satellites.

Of what shape then are these bodies? Of one shape, and that one alone which appears to characterise all solid objects in the celestial spaces: they are spherical, which means round like a ball.

Each of these spherical bodies rotates; that is to say, turns round and round, as a top does when it is spinning. This rotation is said to take place "upon an axis," a statement which may be explained as follows:-Imagine a ball with a knitting-needle run right through its centre. Then imagine this needle held pointing in one fixed direction while the ball is turned round and round. Well, it is the same thing with the earth. As it journeys about the sun, it keeps turning round and round continually as if pivoted upon a mighty knitting needle transfixing it from North Pole to South Pole. In reality, however, there is no such material axis to regulate the constant direction of the rotation, just as there are no actual supports to uphold the earth itself in space. The causes which keep the celestial spheres poised, and which control their motions, are far more wonderful than any mechanical device.

At this juncture it will be well to emphasise the sharp distinction between the terms rotation and revolution. The term "rotation" is invariably used by astronomers to signify the motion which a celestial body has upon an axis; the term "revolution," on the other hand, is used for the movement of one celestial body around another. Speaking of the earth, for instance, we say, that it rotates on its axis, and that it revolves around the sun.

So far, nothing has been said about the sizes of the members of our system. Is there any stock size, any pattern according to which they may be judged? None whatever! They vary enormously. Very much the largest of all is the Sun, which is several hundred times larger than all the planets and satellites of the system rolled together. Next comes Jupiter and afterwards the other planets in the following order of size:-Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, the Earth, Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Very much smaller than any of these are the asteroids, of which Ceres, the largest, is less than 500 miles in diameter. It is, by the way, a strange fact that the zone of asteroids should mark the separation of the small planets from the giant ones. The following table, giving roughly the various diameters of the sun and the principal planets in miles, will clearly illustrate the great discrepancy in size which prevails in the system.

Sun 866,540 miles

Mercury 2,765 "

Venus 7,826 "

Earth 7,918 "

Mars 4,332 "


Jupiter 87,380 "

Saturn 73,125 "

Uranus[3] 34,900 "

Neptune[3] 32,900 "

It does not seem possible to arrive at any generalisation from the above data, except it be to state that there is a continuous increase in size from Mercury to the earth, and a similar decrease in size from Jupiter outwards. Were Mars greater than the earth, the planets could then with truth be said to increase in size up to Jupiter, and then to decrease. But the zone of asteroids, and the relative smallness of Mars, negative any attempt to regard the dimensions of the planets as an orderly sequence.

Next with respect to relative distance from the sun, Venus circulates nearly twice as far from it as Mercury, the earth nearly three times as far, and Mars nearly four times. After this, just as we found a sudden increase in size, so do we meet with a sudden increase in distance. Jupiter, for instance, is about thirteen times as far as Mercury, Saturn about twenty-five times, Uranus about forty-nine times, and Neptune about seventy-seven. (See Fig. 2, p. 21.)

It will thus be seen how enormously the solar system was enlarged in extent by the discovery of the outermost planets. The finding of Uranus plainly doubled its breadth; the finding of Neptune made it more than half as broad again. Nothing indeed can better show the import of these great discoveries than to take a pair of compasses and roughly set out the above relative paths in a series of concentric circles upon a large sheet of paper, and then to consider that the path of Saturn was the supposed boundary of our solar system prior to the year 1781.

We have seen that the usual shape of celestial bodies themselves is spherical. Of what form then are their paths, or orbits, as these are called? One might be inclined at a venture to answer "circular," but this is not the case. The orbits of the planets cannot be regarded as true circles. They are ovals, or, to speak in technical language, "ellipses." Their ovalness or "ellipticity" is, however, in each case not by any means of the same degree. Some orbits-for instance, that of the earth-differ only slightly from circles; while others-those of Mars or Mercury, for example-are markedly elliptic. The orbit of the tiny planet Eros is, however, far and away the most elliptic of all, as we shall see when we come to deal with that little planet in detail.

It has been stated that the sun and planets are always rotating. The various rates at which they do so will, however, be best appreciated by a comparison with the rate at which the earth itself rotates.

But first of all, let us see what ground we have, if any, for asserting that the earth rotates at all?

If we carefully watch the heavens we notice that the background of the sky, with all the brilliant objects which sparkle in it, appears to turn once round us in about twenty-four hours; and that the pivot upon which this movement takes place is situated somewhere near what is known to us as the Pole Star. This was one of the earliest facts noted with regard to the sky; and to the men of old it therefore seems as if the heavens and all therein were always revolving around the earth. It was natural enough for them to take this view, for they had not the slightest idea of the immense distance of the celestial bodies, and in the absence of any knowledge of the kind they were inclined to imagine them comparatively near. It was indeed only after the lapse of many centuries, when men had at last realised the enormous gulf which separated them from even the nearest object in the sky, that a more reasonable opinion began to prevail. It was then seen that this revolution of the heavens about the earth could be more easily and more satisfactorily explained by supposing a mere rotation of the solid earth about a fixed axis, pointed in the direction of the po

lar star. The probability of such a rotation on the part of the earth itself was further strengthened by the observations made with the telescope. When the surfaces of the sun and planets were carefully studied these bodies were seen to be rotating. This being the case, there could not surely be much hesitation in granting that the earth rotated also; particularly when it so simply explained the daily movement of the sky, and saved men from the almost inconceivable notion that the whole stupendous vaulted heaven was turning about them once in every twenty-four hours.

If the sun be regularly observed through a telescope, it will gradually be gathered from the slow displacement of sunspots across its face, their disappearance at one edge and their reappearance again at the other edge, that it is rotating on an axis in a period of about twenty-six days. The movement, too, of various well-known markings on the surfaces of the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn proves to us that these bodies are rotating in periods, which are about twenty-four hours for the first, and about ten hours for each of the other two. With regard, however, to Uranus and Neptune there is much more uncertainty, as these planets are at such great distances that even our best telescopes give but a confused view of the markings which they display; still a period of rotation of from ten to twelve hours appears to be accepted for them. On the other hand the constant blaze of sunlight in the neighbourhood of Mercury and Venus equally hampers astronomers in this quest. The older telescopic observers considered that the rotation periods of these two planets were about the same as that of the earth; but of recent years the opinion has been gaining ground that they turn round on their axes in exactly the same time as they revolve about the sun. This question is, however, a very doubtful one, and will be again referred to later on; but, putting it on one side, it will be seen from what we have said above, that the rotation periods of the other planets of our system are usually about twenty-four hours, or under. The fact that the rotation period of the sun should run into days need not seem extraordinary when one considers its enormous size.

The periods taken by the various planets to revolve around the sun is the next point which has to be considered. Here, too, it is well to start with the earth's period of revolution as the standard, and to see how the periods taken by the other planets compare with it.

The earth takes about 365? days to revolve around the sun. This period of time is known to us as a "year." The following table shows in days and years the periods taken by each of the other planets to make a complete revolution round the sun:-

Mercury about 88 days.

Venus " 226 "

Mars " 1 year and 321 days.

Jupiter " 11 years and 313 days.

Saturn " 29 years and 167 days.

Uranus " 84 years and 7 days.

Neptune " 164 years and 284 days.

From these periods we gather an important fact, namely, that the nearer a planet is to the sun the faster it revolves.

Compared with one of our years what a long time does an Uranian, or Neptunian, "year" seem? For instance, if a "year" had commenced in Neptune about the middle of the reign of George II., that "year" would be only just coming to a close; for the planet is but now arriving back to the position, with regard to the sun, which it then occupied. Uranus, too, has only completed a little more than 1? of its "years" since Herschel discovered it.

Having accepted the fact that the planets are revolving around the sun, the next point to be inquired into is:-What are the positions of their orbits, or paths, relatively to each other?

Suppose, for instance, the various planetary orbits to be represented by a set of hoops of different sizes, placed one within the other, and the sun by a small ball in the middle of the whole; in what positions will these hoops have to be arranged so as to imitate exactly the true condition of things?

First of all let us suppose the entire arrangement, ball and hoops, to be on one level, so to speak. This may be easily compassed by imagining the hoops as floating, one surrounding the other, with the ball in the middle of all, upon the surface of still water. Such a set of objects would be described in astronomical parlance as being in the same plane. Suppose, on the other hand, that some of these floating hoops are tilted with regard to the others, so that one half of a hoop rises out of the water and the other half consequently sinks beneath the surface. This indeed is the actual case with regard to the planetary orbits. They do not by any means lie all exactly in the same plane. Each one of them is tilted, or inclined, a little with respect to the plane of the earth's orbit, which astronomers, for convenience, regard as the level of the solar system. This tilting, or "inclination," is, in the larger planets, greatest for the orbit of Mercury, least for that of Uranus. Mercury's orbit is inclined to that of the earth at an angle of about 7°, that of Venus at a little over 3°, that of Saturn 2?°; while in those of Mars, Neptune, and Jupiter the inclination is less than 2°. But greater than any of these is the inclination of the orbit of the tiny planet Eros, viz. nearly 11°.

The systems of satellites revolving around their respective planets being, as we have already pointed out, mere miniature editions of the solar system, the considerations so far detailed, which regulate the behaviour of the planets in their relations to the sun, will of necessity apply to the satellites very closely. In one respect, however, a system of satellites differs materially from a system of planets. The central body around which planets are in motion is self-luminous, whereas the planetary body around which a satellite revolves is not. True, planets shine, and shine very brightly too; as, for instance, Venus and Jupiter. But they do not give forth any light of their own, as the sun does; they merely reflect the sunlight which they receive from him. Putting this one fact aside, the analogy between the planetary system and a satellite system is remarkable. The satellites are spherical in form, and differ markedly in size; they rotate, so far as we know, upon their axes in varying times; they revolve around their governing planets in orbits, not circular, but elliptic; and these orbits, furthermore, do not of necessity lie in the same plane. Last of all the satellites revolve around their primaries at rates which are directly comparable with those at which the planets revolve around the sun, the rule in fact holding good that the nearer a satellite is to its primary the faster it revolves.

[3] As there seems to be much difference of opinion concerning the diameters of Uranus and Neptune, it should here be mentioned that the above figures are taken from Professor F.R. Moulton's Introduction to Astronomy (1906). They are there stated to be given on the authority of "Barnard's many measures at the Lick Observatory."

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