History of Astronomy Forbes 1909 13 The Moon and Planets

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Geschichte der Astronomie bis 1909. Sprache des Werks: English. Version: 1.


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M.A., F.R.S., M. INST. C. E.,


_The Moon_.--Telescopic discoveries about the moon commence with Galileo's discovery that her surface has mountains and valleys, like the earth. He also found that, while she always turns the same face to us, there is periodically a slight twist to let us see a little round the eastern or western edge. This was called _libration_, and the explanation was clear when it was understood that in showing always the same face to us she makes one revolution a month on her axis _uniformly_, and that her revolution round the earth is not uniform.

Galileo said that the mountains on the moon showed greater differences of level than those on the earth. Shröter supported this opinion. W. Herschel opposed it. But Beer and Mädler measured the heights of lunar mountains by their shadows, and found four of them over 20,000 feet above the surrounding plains.

Langrenus [1] was the first to do serious work on selenography, and named the lunar features after eminent men. Riccioli also made lunar charts. In 1692 Cassini made a chart of the full moon. Since then we have the charts of Schröter, Beer and Mädler (1837), and of Schmidt, of Athens (1878); and, above all, the photographic atlas by Loewy and Puiseux.

The details of the moon's surface require for their discussion a whole book, like that of Neison or the one by Nasmyth and Carpenter. Here a few words must suffice. Mountain ranges like our Andes or Himalayas are rare. Instead of that, we see an immense number of circular cavities, with rugged edges and flat interior, often with a cone in the centre, reminding one of instantaneous photographs of the splash of a drop of water falling into a pool. Many of these are fifty or sixty miles across, some more. They are generally spoken of as resembling craters of volcanoes, active or extinct, on the earth. But some of those who have most fully studied the shapes of craters deny altogether their resemblance to the circular objects on the moon. These so-called craters, in many parts, are seen to be closely grouped, especially in the snow-white parts of the moon. But there are great smooth dark spaces, like the clear black ice on a pond, more free from craters, to which the equally inappropriate name of seas has been given. The most conspicuous crater, _Tycho_, is near the south pole. At full moon there are seen to radiate from Tycho numerous streaks of light, or "rays," cutting through all the mountain formations, and extending over fully half the lunar disc, like the star-shaped cracks made on a sheet of ice by a blow. Similar cracks radiate from other large craters. It must be mentioned that these white rays are well seen only in full light of the sun at full moon, just as the white snow in the crevasses of a glacier is seen bright from a distance only when the sun is high, and disappears at sunset. Then there are deep, narrow, crooked "rills" which may have been water-courses; also "clefts" about half a mile wide, and often hundreds of miles long, like deep cracks in the surface going straight through mountain and valley.

The moon shares with the sun the advantage of being a good subject for photography, though the planets are not. This is owing to her larger apparent size, and the abundance of illumination. The consequence is that the finest details of the moon, as seen in the largest telescope in the world, may be reproduced at a cost within the reach of all.

No certain changes have ever been observed; but several suspicions have been expressed, especially as to the small crater _Linné_, in the _Mare Serenitatis_. It is now generally agreed that no certainty can be expected from drawings, and that for real evidence we must await the verdict of photography.

No trace of water or of an atmosphere has been found on the moon. It is possible that the temperature is too low. In any case, no displacement of a star by atmospheric refraction at occultation has been surely recorded. The moon seems to be dead.

The distance of the moon from the earth is just now the subject of re-measurement. The base line is from Greenwich to Cape of Good Hope, and the new feature introduced is the selection of a definite point on a crater (Mösting A), instead of the moon's edge, as the point whose distance is to be measured.

_The Inferior Planets_.--When the telescope was invented, the phases of Venus attracted much attention; but the brightness of this planet, and her proximity to the sun, as with Mercury also, seemed to be a bar to the discovery of markings by which the axis and period of rotation could be fixed. Cassini gave the rotation as twenty-three hours, by observing a bright spot on her surface. Shröter made it 23h. 21m. 19s. This value was supported by others. In 1890 Schiaparelli[2] announced that Venus rotates, like our moon, once in one of her revolutions, and always directs the same face to the sun. This property has also been ascribed to Mercury; but in neither case has the evidence been generally accepted. Twenty-four hours is probably about the period of rotation for each of these planets.

Several observers have claimed to have seen a planet within the orbit of Mercury, either in transit over the sun's surface or during an eclipse. It has even been named _Vulcan_. These announcements would have received little attention but for the fact that the motion of Mercury has irregularities which have not been accounted for by known planets; and Le Verrier[3] has stated that an intra-Mercurial planet or ring of asteroids would account for the unexplained part of the motion of the line of apses of Mercury's orbit amounting to 38" per century.

_Mars_.--The first study of the appearance of Mars by Miraldi led him to believe that there were changes proceeding in the two white caps which are seen at the planet's poles. W. Herschel attributed these caps to ice and snow, and the dates of his observations indicated a melting of these ice-caps in the Martian summer.

Schroter attributed the other markings on Mars to drifting clouds. But Beer and Mädler, in 1830-39, identified the same dark spots as being always in the same place, though sometimes blurred by mist in the local winter. A spot sketched by Huyghens in 1672, one frequently seen by W. Herschel in 1783, another by Arago in 1813, and nearly all the markings recorded by Beer and Mädler in 1830, were seen and drawn by F. Kaiser in Leyden during seventeen nights of the opposition of 1862 (_Ast. Nacht._, No. 1,468), whence he deduced the period of rotation to be 24h. 37m. 22s.,62--or one-tenth of a second less than the period deduced by R. A. Proctor from a drawing by Hooke in 1666.

It must be noted that, if the periods of rotation both of Mercury and Venus be about twenty-four hours, as seems probable, all the four planets nearest to the sun rotate in the same period, while the great planets rotate in about ten hours (Uranus and Neptune being still indeterminate).

The general surface of Mars is a deep yellow; but there are dark grey or greenish patches. Sir John Herschel was the first to attribute the ruddy colour of Mars to its soil rather than to its atmosphere.

The observations of that keen-sighted observer Dawes led to the first good map of Mars, in 1869. In the 1877 opposition Schiaparelli revived interest in the planet by the discovery of canals, uniformly about sixty miles wide, running generally on great circles, some of them being three or four thousand miles long. During the opposition of 1881-2 the same observer re-observed the canals, and in twenty of them he found the canals duplicated,[4] the second canal being always 200 to 400 miles distant from its fellow.

The existence of these canals has been doubted. Mr. Lowell has now devoted years to the subject, has drawn them over and over again, and has photographed them; and accepts the explanation that they are artificial, and that vegetation grows on their banks. Thus is revived the old controversy between Whewell and Brewster as to the habitability of the planets. The new arguments are not yet generally accepted. Lowell believes he has, with the spectroscope, proved the existence of water on Mars.

One of the most unexpected and interesting of all telescopic discoveries took place in the opposition of 1877, when Mars was unusually near to the earth. The Washington Observatory had acquired the fine 26-inch refractor, and Asaph Hall searched for satellites, concealing the planet's disc to avoid the glare. On August 11th he had a suspicion of a satellite. This was confirmed on the 16th, and on the following night a second one was added. They are exceedingly faint, and can be seen only by the most powerful telescopes, and only at the times of opposition. Their diameters are estimated at six or seven miles. It was soon found that the first, Deimos, completes its orbit in 30h. 18m. But the other, Phobos, at first was a puzzle, owing to its incredible velocity being unsuspected. Later it was found that the period of revolution was only 7h. 39m. 22s. Since the Martian day is twenty-four and a half hours, this leads to remarkable results. Obviously the easterly motion of the satellite overwhelms the diurnal rotation of the planet, and Phobos must appear to the inhabitants, if they exist, to rise in the west and set in the east, showing two or even three full moons in a day, so that, sufficiently well for the ordinary purposes of life, the hour of the day can be told by its phases.

The discovery of these two satellites is, perhaps, the most interesting telescopic visual discovery made with the large telescopes of the last half century; photography having been the means of discovering all the other new satellites except Jupiter's fifth (in order of discovery).

[Illustration: JUPITER. From a drawing by E. M. Antoniadi, showing transit of a satellite's shadow, the belts, and the "great red spot" (_Monthly Notices_, R. A. S., vol. lix., pl. x.).]

_Jupiter._--Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's satellites was followed by the discovery of his belts. Zucchi and Torricelli seem to have seen them. Fontana, in 1633, reported three belts. In 1648 Grimaldi saw but two, and noticed that they lay parallel to the ecliptic. Dusky spots were also noticed as transient. Hooke[5] measured the motion of one in 1664. In 1665 Cassini, with a fine telescope, 35-feet focal length, observed many spots moving from east to west, whence he concluded that Jupiter rotates on an axis like the earth. He watched an unusually permanent spot during twenty-nine rotations, and fixed the period at 9h. 56m. Later he inferred that spots near the equator rotate quicker than those in higher latitudes (the same as Carrington found for the sun); and W. Herschel confirmed this in 1778-9.

Jupiter's rapid rotation ought, according to Newton's theory, to be accompanied by a great flattening at the poles. Cassini had noted an oval form in 1691. This was confirmed by La Hire, Römer, and Picard. Pound measured the ellipticity = 1/(13.25).

W. Herschel supposed the spots to be masses of cloud in the atmosphere--an opinion still accepted. Many of them were very permanent. Cassini's great spot vanished and reappeared nine times between 1665 and 1713. It was close to the northern margin of the southern belt. Herschel supposed the belts to be the body of the planet, and the lighter parts to be clouds confined to certain latitudes.

In 1665 Cassini observed transits of the four satellites, and also saw their shadows on the planet, and worked out a lunar theory for Jupiter. Mathematical astronomers have taken great interest in the perturbations of the satellites, because their relative periods introduce peculiar effects. Airy, in his delightful book, _Gravitation_, has reduced these investigations to simple geometrical explanations.

In 1707 and 1713 Miraldi noticed that the fourth satellite varies much in brightness. W. Herschel found this variation to depend upon its position in its orbit, and concluded that in the positions of feebleness it is always presenting to us a portion of its surface, which does not well reflect the sun's light; proving that it always turns the same face to Jupiter, as is the case with our moon. This fact had also been established for Saturn's fifth satellite, and may be true for all satellites.

In 1826 Struve measured the diameters of the four satellites, and found them to be 2,429, 2,180, 3,561, and 3,046 miles.

In modern times much interest has been taken in watching a rival to Cassini's famous spot. The "great red spot" was first observed by Niesten, Pritchett, and Tempel, in 1878, as a rosy cloud attached to a whitish zone beneath the dark southern equatorial band, shaped like the new war balloons, 30,000 miles long and 7,000 miles across. The next year it was brick-red. A white spot beside it completed a rotation in less time by 51/2 minutes than the red spot--a difference of 260 miles an hour. Thus they came together again every six weeks, but the motions did not continue uniform. The spot was feeble in 1882-4, brightened in 1886, and, after many changes, is still visible.

Galileo's great discovery of Jupiter's four moons was the last word in this connection until September 9th, 1892, when Barnard, using the 36-inch refractor of the Lick Observatory, detected a tiny spot of light closely following the planet. This proved to be a new satellite (fifth), nearer to the planet than any other, and revolving round it in 11h. 57m. 23s. Between its rising and setting there must be an interval of 21/2 Jovian days, and two or three full moons. The sixth and seventh satellites were found by the examination of photographic plates at the Lick Observatory in 1905, since which time they have been continuously photographed, and their orbits traced, at Greenwich. On examining these plates in 1908 Mr. Melotte detected the eighth satellite, which seems to be revolving in a retrograde orbit three times as far from its planet as the next one (seventh), in these two points agreeing with the outermost of Saturn's satellites (Phoebe).

_Saturn._--This planet, with its marvellous ring, was perhaps the most wonderful object of those first examined by Galileo's telescope. He was followed by Dominique Cassini, who detected bands like Jupiter's belts. Herschel established the rotation of the planet in 1775-94. From observations during one hundred rotations he found the period to be 10h. 16m. 0s., 44. Herschel also measured the ratio of the polar to the equatoreal diameter as 10:11.

The ring was a complete puzzle to Galileo, most of all when the planet reached a position where the plane of the ring was in line with the earth, and the ring disappeared (December 4th, 1612). It was not until 1656 that Huyghens, in his small pamphlet _De Saturni Luna Observatio Nova_, was able to suggest in a cypher the ring form; and in 1659, in his Systema Saturnium, he gave his reasons and translated the cypher: "The planet is surrounded by a slender flat ring, everywhere distinct from its surface, and inclined to the ecliptic." This theory explained all the phases of the ring which had puzzled others. This ring was then, and has remained ever since, a unique structure. We in this age have got accustomed to it. But Huyghens's discovery was received with amazement.

In 1675 Cassini found the ring to be double, the concentric rings being separated by a black band--a fact which was placed beyond dispute by Herschel, who also found that the thickness of the ring subtends an angle less than 0".3. Shröter estimated its thickness at 500 miles.

Many speculations have been advanced to explain the origin and constitution of the ring. De Sejour said [6] that it was thrown off from Saturn's equator as a liquid ring, and afterwards solidified. He noticed that the outside would have a greater velocity, and be less attracted to the planet, than the inner parts, and that equilibrium would be impossible; so he supposed it to have solidified into a number of concentric rings, the exterior ones having the least velocity.

Clerk Maxwell, in the Adams prize essay, gave a physico-mathematical demonstration that the rings must be composed of meteoritic matter like gravel. Even so, there must be collisions absorbing the energy of rotation, and tending to make the rings eventually fall into the planet. The slower motion of the external parts has been proved by the spectroscope in Keeler's hands, 1895.

Saturn has perhaps received more than its share of attention owing to these rings. This led to other discoveries. Huyghens in 1655, and J. D. Cassini in 1671, discovered the sixth and eighth satellites (Titan and Japetus). Cassini lost his satellite, and in searching for it found Rhea (the fifth) in 1672, besides his old friend, whom he lost again. He added the third and fourth in 1684 (Tethys and Dione). The first and second (Mimas and Encelades) were added by Herschel in 1789, and the seventh (Hyperion) simultaneously by Lassel and Bond in 1848. The ninth (Phoebe) was found on photographs, by Pickering in 1898, with retrograde motion; and he has lately added a tenth.

The occasional disappearance of Cassini's Japetus was found on investigation to be due to the same causes as that of Jupiter's fourth satellite, and proves that it always turns the same face to the planet.

_Uranus and Neptune_.--The splendid discoveries of Uranus and two satellites by Sir William Herschel in 1787, and of Neptune by Adams and Le Verrier in 1846, have been already described. Lassel added two more satellites to Uranus in 1851, and found Neptune's satellite in 1846. All of the satellites of Uranus have retrograde motion, and their orbits are inclined about 80° to the ecliptic.

The spectroscope has shown the existence of an absorbing atmosphere on Jupiter and Saturn, and there are suspicions that they partake something of the character of the sun, and emit some light besides reflecting solar light. On both planets some absorption lines seem to agree with the aqueous vapour lines of our own atmosphere; while one, which is a strong band in the red common to both planets, seems to agree with a line in the spectrum of some reddish stars.

Uranus and Neptune are difficult to observe spectroscopically, but appear to have peculiar spectra agreeing together. Sometimes Uranus shows Frauenhofer lines, indicating reflected solar light. But generally these are not seen, and six broad bands of absorption appear. One is the F. of hydrogen; another is the red-star line of Jupiter and Saturn. Neptune is a very difficult object for the spectroscope.

Quite lately [7] P. Lowell has announced that V. M. Slipher, at Flagstaff Observatory, succeeded in 1907 in rendering some plates sensitive far into the red. A reproduction is given of photographed spectra of the four outermost planets, showing (1) a great number of new lines and bands; (2) intensification of hydrogen F. and C. lines; (3) a steady increase of effects (1) and (2) as we pass from Jupiter and Saturn to Uranus, and a still greater increase in Neptune.

_Asteroids_.--The discovery of these new planets has been described. At the beginning of the last century it was an immense triumph to catch a new one. Since photography was called into the service by Wolf, they have been caught every year in shoals. It is like the difference between sea fishing with the line and using a steam trawler. In the 1908 almanacs nearly seven hundred asteroids are included. The computation of their perturbations and ephemerides by Euler's and Lagrange's method of variable elements became so laborious that Encke devised a special process for these, which can be applied to many other disturbed orbits. [8]

When a photograph is taken of a region of the heavens including an asteroid, the stars are photographed as points because the telescope is made to follow their motion; but the asteroids, by their proper motion, appear as short lines.

The discovery of Eros and the photographic attack upon its path have been described in their relation to finding the sun's distance.

A group of four asteroids has lately been found, with a mean distance and period equal to that of Jupiter. To three of these masculine names have been given--Hector, Patroclus, Achilles; the other has not yet been named.


[1] Langrenus (van Langren), F. Selenographia sive lumina austriae philippica; Bruxelles, 1645.

[2] _Astr. Nach._, 2,944.

[3] _Acad. des Sc._, Paris; _C.R._, lxxxiii., 1876.

[4] _Mem. Spettr. Ital._, xi., p. 28.

[5] _R. S. Phil. Trans_., No. 1.

[6] Grant's _Hist. Ph. Ast_., p. 267.

[7] _Nature_, November 12th, 1908.

[8] _Ast. Nach_., Nos. 791, 792, 814, translated by G. B. Airy. _Naut. Alm_., Appendix, 1856.