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.
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. This is Mercury, the agile and active messenger of Olympus, the god of eloquence, of medicine, of commerce, and of thieves. 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, 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 are the 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.
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 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.
Yet we may well imagine that Nature's fecundity can have engendered beings there of an organization different from our own, adapted to an existence in the proximity of fire. What magnificent landscapes may there be adorned with the luxuriant vegetation that develops rapidly under an ardent and generous sun?
Observations of Mercury are taken under great difficulties, just because of the immediate proximity of 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 as a magnificent orb of first 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, and admired doubtless as an enchanted and privileged abode.
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.
But is this little solar planet inhabited? We do not yet know. We can only reply: why not?
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 God of Day.
Hail, Venus, Queen of the Heavens! the "Shepherd's Star," gentle mother of the loves, goddess of beauty, eternally adored and cherished, sung and immortalized upon Earth, by poets and artists. Her splendid brilliancy attracted notice from earliest antiquity, and we find her, radiant and charming, in the works of the ancients, who erected altars to her and adorned their poetry with her grace and beauty. Homer calls her Callisto the Beautiful; Cicero names her Vesper, the evening star, and Lucifer, the star of the morning—for it was with this divinity as with Mercury. For a long while she was regarded as two separate planets, and it was only when it came to be observed that the evening and the morning star were always in periodic succession, that the identity of the orb was recognized.
Her radiant splendor created her mythological personality, just as the agility of Mercury created that of the messenger of the gods.
We do not see her aerial chariot in the Heavens drawn by a flight of doves with white and fluttering wings, but we follow the lustrous orb led on through space by solar attraction. And in the beautiful evenings when she is at her greatest distance from our Sun, the whole world admires this white and dazzling Venus reigning as sovereign over our twilight for hours after sunset, and in addition to the savants who are practically occupied with astronomy, millions of eyes are raised to this celestial splendor, and for a moment millions of human beings feel some curiosity about the mysteries of the Infinite. The brutalities of daily life would fain petrify our dreams, but thought is not yet stifled to the point of checking all aspirations after eternal truth, and when we gaze at the starry sky it is hard not to ask ourselves the nature of those other worlds, and the place occupied by our own planet in the vast concert of sidereal harmony.
Even through a small telescope, Venus offers remarkable phases.
Fig. 37 gives some notion of the succession of these, and of 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 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 of Mars or of Jupiter; but the beautiful Evening Star remains obstinately veiled from our curiosity.
Several astronomers, and not the least considerable, think that the tides produced by the Sun upon her seas, or globe in its state of pristine fluidity, must have been strong enough to seize and fix her, as the Earth did for the Moon, thus obliging her to present always the same face to the Sun. Certain telescopic observations would even seem to confirm this theoretical deduction from the calculations of celestial mechanics.
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 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 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.
When we contemplate this radiant Venus, it is difficult, even if we can not form any definite idea as to her actual state as regards habitation, to assume that she must be a dreary desert, and not, on the contrary, to hail in her a celestial land, differing more or less from our own dwelling-place, travailing with her sisters in the accomplishment of the general plan of Nature.
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.|
It will be seen that Venus is almost identical with the Earth.
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.
Unfortunate Mars! What evil fairy presided at his birth? From antiquity, all curses seem to have fallen upon him. He is the god of war and of carnage, the protector of armies, the inspirer of hatred among the peoples, it is he who pours out the blood of Humanity in international hecatombs. Here, again, as in the case of Mercury and Venus, the appearance has originated the idea. Mars, in fact, burns like a drop of blood in the depths of the firmament, and it is this ruddy color that inspired its name and attributes, just as the dazzling whiteness of Venus made her the goddess of love and beauty. Why, indeed, should the origins of mythology be sought elsewhere than in astronomy?
While Humanity was attributing to the presumptive influence of Mars the defects inherent in its own terrestrial nature, this world, unwitting of our sorrows, pursued the celestial path marked out for it in space by destiny.
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 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.
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 consequence, its seasons are analogous to ours in intensity, while twice the length, the Martian year being almost equal to two of our years. The intensity of the seasons is indeed more accentuated than upon the Earth, since the orbit of Mars is very elongated. But there, as here, are three quite distinct zones: the torrid, the temperate, and the glacial.
By means of the telescope we can follow the variations of the Martian seasons, especially in what concerns the polar snows, which regularly aggregate during the winter, and melt no less regularly during the heat of the summer. These snows are very easily observed, and stand out clearly with dazzling whiteness. The reader can judge of them by the accompanying figure, which sums up the author's observations during one of the recent oppositions of Mars (1900–1901). The size of the polar cap diminished from 4,680 kilometers to 840. The solstice of the Martian summer was on April 11th. The snows were still melting on July 6th. Sometimes they disappear almost entirely during the Martian month that corresponds to our month of August, as never happens with our polar ice. Hence, though this planet is farther away from the Sun than ourselves, it does not appear to be colder, or, at any rate, it is certain that the polar snows are much less thick.
On the other hand, there are hardly ever clouds on Mars; the Martian atmosphere is almost always limpid, and one can say that fine weather is the chronic state of the planet. At times, light fogs or a little vapor will appear in certain regions, but they are soon dissipated, and the sky clears up again.
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). Its appearance can be judged of from the two drawings here reproduced, as made (February, 1901) at the Observatory of Juvisy, and from the general chart drawn from the total sum of observations (Figs. 41, 42 and 43).
It will be seen at the first glance that the geography of Mars is very different from that of our own globe: while three-quarters of the Earth are covered with the liquid element, Mars seems to be more evenly divided, and must indeed have rather more land than water. We find no immense oceans surrounding the continents, and separating them like islands; on the contrary, the seas are reduced to long gulfs compressed between the shores, like the Mediterranean for example, nor is it even certain that these gray spots do all represent true seas. It has been agreed to term sea the parts that are lightly tinged with green, and to give the name of continent to the spots colored yellow. That is the hue of the Martian soil, due either to the soil itself, which would resemble that of the Sahara, or, to take a less arid region, that seen on the line between Marseilles and Nice, in the vicinity of the Esterels; or perhaps to some peculiar vegetation. During ascents in a balloon, the author has often remarked that the hue of the ripe corn, with the Sun shining on it, is precisely that presented to us by the continents of Mars in the best hours for observation.
As to the "seas," it is pretty certain that there must be water, or some kind of liquid, deriving above all from the melting of the polar snows in spring and summer; but it may possibly be in conjunction with some vegetation, aquatic plants, or perhaps vast meadows, which appear to us from here to be the more considerable in proportion as the water that nourishes them has been more abundant.
Mars, like our globe, is surrounded with a protective atmosphere, which retains the rays of the Sun, and must preserve a medium temperature favorable to the conservation of life upon the surface of the planet. But the circulation of the water, so important to terrestrial life, whether animal or vegetable, which is effected upon our planet by the evaporation of the seas, clouds, winds, rains, wells, rivers and streams, comes about quite differently on Mars; for, as was remarked above, it is rarely that any clouds are observed there. Instead of being vertical, as here, this circulation is horizontal: the water coming from the source of the polar snows finds its way into the canals and seas, and returns to be condensed at the poles by a light drift of invisible vapors directed from the equator to the poles. There is never any rain.
We have spoken of canals. One of the great puzzles of the Martian world is incontestably the appearance of straight lines that furrow its surface in all directions, and seem to connect the seas. M. Schiaparelli, the distinguished Director of the Observatory of Milan, who discovered them in 1877, called them canals, without, however, postulating anything as to their real nature. Are they indeed canals? These straight lines, measuring sometimes 600 kilometers (372 miles) in length, and more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) in breadth, have much the same hue as the seas on which they open. For a quarter of a century they have been surveyed by the greater number of our observers. But it must be confessed that, even with the best instruments, we only approach Mars at a distance of 60,000 kilometers (37,200 miles), which is still a little far off, and we may be sure that we do not distinguish the true details of the surface. These details at the limits of visibility produce the appearance of canals to our eyes. They may possibly be lines of lakes, or oases. The future will no doubt clear up this mystery for us.
As to the inhabitants of Mars, this world is in a situation as favorable as our Earth for habitation, and it would be difficult to discover any reason for perpetual sterility there. It appears to us, on the contrary, by its rapid and frequent variations of aspect, to be a very living world. Its atmosphere, which is always clear, has not the density of our own, and resembles that of the highest mountains. The conditions of existence there vary from ours, and appear to be more delicate, more ethereal.
There as here, day succeeds to night, spring softens the rigors of winter; the seasons unfold, less disparate than our own, of which we have such frequent reason to complain. The sky is perpetually clear. There are never tempests, hurricanes, nor cyclones, the wind never gets up any force there, on account of the rarity of the atmosphere, and the low intensity of weight.
Differing from ours, this world may well be a more congenial habitation. It is more ancient than the Earth, smaller, less massive. It has run more quickly through the phases of its evolution. Its astral life is more advanced, and its Humanity should be superior to our own, just as our successors a million years hence, for example, will be less coarse and barbarous than we are at present: the law of progress governs all the worlds, and, moreover, the physical constitution of the planet Mars is less dense than our own.
There is no need to despair of entering some day into communication with these unknown beings. The luminous points that have been observed are no signals, but high summits or light clouds illuminated by the rising or setting sun. But the idea of communication with them in the future is no more audacious and no less scientific than the invention of spectral analysis, X-rays, or wireless telegraphy.
We may suppose that the study of astronomy is further advanced in Mars than on the Earth, because humanity itself has advanced further, and because the starry sky is far finer there, far easier to study, owing to the limpidity of its pure, clear atmosphere.
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 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; doubtless they have determined her phases. Many a vow, and many a hope must have been wafted toward her, more than one broken heart must have permitted its unrealized dreams to wander forth to our planet as to an abode of happiness where all who have suffered in their native world might find a haven. But our planet, alas! is not as perfect as they imagine.
We must not dally upon Mars, but hasten our celestial excursion toward Jupiter.