A Journey through Space
We have seen from the foregoing summary of the principal Constellations that there is great diversity in the brightness of the stars, and that while our eyes are dazzled with the brilliancy of certain orbs, others, on the contrary, sparkle modestly in the azure depths of the night, and are hardly perceptible to the eye that seeks to plumb the abysses of Immensity.
We have appended the word "magnitude" to the names of certain
To facilitate the observation of stars of varying brilliancy, they have been classified in order of magnitude, according to their apparent brightness, and since the dimensions of these distant suns are almost wholly unknown to us, the most luminous stars were naturally denoted as of first magnitude, those which were a little less bright of the second, and so on. But in reality this word "magnitude" is quite erroneous, for it bears no relation to the mass of the stars, divided thus at an epoch when it was supposed that the most brilliant must be the largest. It simply indicates the apparent brightness of a star, the real brilliancy depending on its dimensions, its intrinsic light, and its distance from our planet.
And now to make some comparison between the different orders. Throughout the entire firmament, only nineteen stars of first magnitude are discoverable. And, strictly speaking, the last of this series might just as well be noted of "second magnitude," while the first of the second series might be added to the list of stars of the "first order." But in order to form classes distinct from one another, some limit has to be adopted, and it was determined that the first series should include only the following stars, the most luminous in the Heavens, which are subjoined in order of decreasing brilliancy.
STARS OF THE FIRST MAGNITUDE
|1.||Sirius, or α of the Great Dog.|
|2.||Canopus, or α of the Ship.|
|3.||Capella, or α of the Charioteer.|
|4.||Arcturus, or α of the Herdsman.|
|5.||Vega, or α of the Lyre.|
|6.||Proxima, or α of the Centaur.|
|7.||Rigel, or β of Orion.|
|8.||Achernar, or α of Eridanus.|
|9.||Procyon, or α of the Little Dog.|
|10.||β of the Centaur.|
|11.||Betelgeuse, or α of Orion.|
|12.||Altaïr, or α of the Eagle.|
|13.||α of the Southern Cross.|
|14.||Aldebaran, or α of the Bull.|
|15.||Spica, or α of the Virgin.|
|16.||Antares, or α of the Scorpion.|
|17.||Pollux, or β of the Twins.|
|18.||Regulus, or α of the Lion.|
|19.||Fomalhaut, or α of the Southern Fish.|
THE STARS OF THE SECOND MAGNITUDE
Then come the stars of the second magnitude, of which there are fifty-nine. The stars of the Great Bear (with the exception of δ, which is of third magnitude), the Pole-Star, the chief stars in Orion (after Rigel and Betelgeuse), of the Lion, of Pegasus, of Andromeda, of Cassiopeia, are of this order. These, with the former, constitute the principal outlines of the constellations visible to us.
Then follow the third and fourth magnitudes, and so on.
The following table gives a summary of the series, down to the sixth magnitude, which is the limit of visibility for the unaided human eye:
|19||stars of first magnitude.|
|59||of second magnitude.|
|182||of third magnitude.|
|530||of fourth magnitude.|
|1,600||of fifth magnitude.|
|4,800||of sixth magnitude.|
This makes a total of some seven thousand stars visible to the unaided eye. It will be seen that each series is, roughly speaking, three times as populated as that preceding it; consequently, if we multiply the number of any class by three, we obtain the approximate number of stars that make up the class succeeding it.
Seven thousand stars! It is an imposing figure, when one reflects that all these lucid points are suns, as enormous as they are potent, as incandescent as our own (which exceeds the volume of the Earth by more than a million times), distant centers of light and heat, exerting their attraction on unknown systems. And yet it is generally imagined that millions of stars are visible in the firmament. This is an illusion; even the best vision is unable to distinguish stars below the sixth magnitude, and ordinary sight is far from discovering all of these.
Again, seven thousand stars for the whole Heavens makes only three thousand five hundred for half the sky. And we can only see one celestial hemisphere at a time. Moreover, toward the horizon, the vapor of the atmosphere veils the little stars of sixth magnitude. In reality, we never see at a given moment more than three thousand stars. This number is below that of the population of a small town.
But celestial space is unlimited, and we must not suppose that these seven thousand stars that fascinate our eyes and enrich our Heavens, without which our nights would be black, dark, and empty, comprise the whole of Creation. They only represent the vestibule of the temple.
Where our vision is arrested, a larger, more powerful eye, that is developing from century to century, plunges its analyzing gaze into the abysses, and reflects back to the insatiable curiosity of science the light of the innumerable suns that it discovers. This eye is the lens of the optical instruments. Even opera-glasses disclose stars of the seventh magnitude. A small astronomical objective penetrates to the eighth and ninth orders. More powerful instruments attain the tenth. The Heavens are progressively transformed to the eye of the astronomer, and soon he is able to reckon hundreds of thousands of orbs in the night. The evolution continues, the power of the instrument is developed; and the stars of the eleventh and twelfth magnitudes are discovered successively, and together number four millions. Then follow the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth magnitudes. This is the sequence:
Accordingly, the most powerful telescopes of the day, reenforced by celestial photography, can bring a stream of more than 120 millions of stars into the scope of our vision.
The photographic map of the Heavens now being executed comprises the first fourteen magnitudes, and will give the precise position of some 40,000,000 stars, distributed over 22,054 sheets, forming a sphere 3 meters 44 centimeters in diameter.
The boldest imagination is overwhelmed by these figures, and fails to picture such millions of suns—formidable and burning globes that roll through space, sweeping their systems along with them. What furnaces are there! what unknown lives! what vast immensities!
And again, what enormous distances must separate the stars, to admit of their free revolution in the ether! In what abysses, at what a distance from our terrestrial atom, must these magnificent and dazzling Suns pursue the paths traced for them by Destiny!
If all the stars radiated an equal light, their distances might be calculated on the principle that an object appears smaller in proportion to its distance. But this equality does not exist. The suns were not all cast in the same mold.
Indeed, the stars differ widely in size and brightness, and the distances that have been measured show that the most brilliant are not the nearest. They are scattered through Space at all distances.
Among the nearer stars of which it has been found possible to calculate the distance, some are found to be of the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and even ninth magnitudes, proving that the most brilliant are not always the least distant.
For the rest, among the beautiful and shining stars with which we made acquaintance in the last chapter may be cited Sirius, which at a distance of 92 trillion kilometers (57 trillion miles) from here still dazzles us with its burning fires; Procyon or α of the Little Dog, as remote as 112 trillion kilometers (691⁄2 trillion miles); Altaïr of the Eagle, at 160 trillion kilometers (99 trillion miles); the white Vega, at 204 trillion kilometers (1261⁄2 trillion miles); Capella, at 276 trillion kilometers (171 trillion miles); and the Pole-Star at 344 trillion kilometers (2131⁄2 trillion miles). The light that flies through Space at a velocity of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second, takes thirty-six years and a half to reach us from this distant sun: i.e., the luminous ray we are now receiving from Polaris has been traveling for more than the third of a century. When you, gentle reader, were born, the ray that arrives to-day from the Pole-Star was already speeding on its way. In the first second after it had started it traveled 300,000 kilometers; in the second it added another 300,000 which at once makes 600,000 kilometers; add another 300,000 kilometers for the third second, and so on during the thirty-six years and a half.
If we tried to arrange the number 300,000 (which represents the distance accomplished in one second) in superposed rows, as if for an addition sum, as many times as is necessary to obtain the distance that separates the Pole-Star from our Earth, the necessary operation would comprise 1,151,064,000 rows, and the sheet of paper required for the setting out of such a sum would measure approximately 11,510 kilometers (about 7,000 miles), i.e., almost the diameter of our terrestrial globe, or about four times the distance from Paris to Moscow!
Is it not impossible to realize that our Sun, with its entire system, is lost in the Heavens at such a distance from his peers in Space? At the distance of the least remote of the stars he would appear as one of the smallest.
The nearest star to us is α of the Centaur, of first magnitude, a neighbor of the South Pole, invisible in our latitudes. Its distance is 275,000 radii of the terrestrial orbit, i.e., 275,000 times 149 million kilometers, which gives 41 trillions, or 41,000 milliards of kilometers (= 251⁄2 trillion miles). [A milliard = 1,000 millions, the French billion. A trillion = 1,000 milliards, or a million millions, the English billion. The French nomenclature has been retained by the translator.] At a speed of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second the light takes four years to come from thence. It is a fine double star.
The next nearest star after this is a little orb invisible to the unaided eye. It has no name, and stands as No. 21,185 in the Catalogue of Lalande. It almost attains the seventh magnitude (6.8). Its distance is 64 trillion kilometers (391⁄2 trillion miles).
The third of which the distance has been measured is the small star in Cygnus, already referred to in Chapter II, in describing the Constellations. Its distance is 69 trillion kilometers (421⁄2 trillion miles). This, too, is a double star. The light takes seven years to reach us.
As we have seen, the fine stars Sirius, Procyon, Aldebaran, Altaïr, Vega, and Capella are more remote.
Our solar system is thus very isolated in the vastness of Infinitude. The latest known planet of our system, Neptune, performs its revolutions in space at 4 milliards, 470 million kilometers (2,771,400,000 miles) from our Sun. Even this is a respectable distance! But beyond this world, an immense gulf, almost a void abyss, extends to the nearest star, α of the Centaur. Between Neptune and Centauris there is no star to cheer the black and cold solitude of the immense vacuum. One or two unknown planets, some wandering comets, and swarms of meteors, doubtless traverse those unknown spaces, but all invisible to us.
Later on we will discuss the methods that have been employed in measuring these distances. Let us now continue our description.
Now that we have some notion of the distance of the stars we must approach them with the telescope, and compare them one with another.
Let us, for example, get close to Sirius: in this star we admire a sun that is several times heavier than our own, and of much greater mass, accompanied by a second sun that revolves round it in fifty years. Its light is exceedingly white, and it notably burns with hydrogen flames, like Vega and Altaïr.
Now let us approach Arcturus, Capella, Aldebaran: these are yellow stars with golden rays, like our Sun, and the vapor of iron, of sodium, and of many other metals can be identified in their spectrum. These stars are older than the first, and the ruddy ones, such as Antares, Betelgeuse, α of Hercules, are still older; several of them are variable, and are on their way to final extinction.
The Heavens afford us a perennial store of treasure, wherein the thinker, poet or artist can find inexhaustible subjects of contemplation.
You have heard of the celestial jewels, the diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, topazes, and other precious stones of the sidereal casket. These marvels are met with especially among the double stars.
Our Sun, white and solitary, gives no idea of the real aspect of some of its brothers in Infinitude. There are as many different types as there are suns!
Stars, you will think, are like individuals: each has its distinct characteristics: no two are comparable. And indeed this reflection is justified. While human vanity does homage to Phœbus, divine King of the Heavens, other suns of still greater magnificence form groups of two or three splendid orbs, which roll the prodigious combinations of their double, triple, or multiple systems through space, pouring on to the worlds that accompany them a flood of changing light, now blue, now red, now violet, etc.
In the inexhaustible variety of Creation there exist Suns that are united in pairs, bound by a common destiny, cradled in the same attraction, and often colored in the most delicate and entrancing shades conceivable. Here will be a dazzling ruby, its glowing color shedding joy; there a deep blue sapphire of tender tone; beyond, the finest emeralds, hue of hope. Diamonds of translucent purity and whiteness sparkle from the abyss, and shed their penetrating light into the vast space. What splendors are scattered broadcast over the sky! what profusion!
To the naked eye, the groups appear like ordinary stars, mere luminous points of greater or less brilliancy; but the telescope soon discovers the beauty of these systems; the star is duplicated into two distinct suns, in close proximity. These groups of two or several suns are not merely due to an effect of perspective—i.e., the presence of two or more stars in our line of sight; as a rule they constitute real physical systems, and these suns, associated in a common lot, rotate round one another in a more or less rapid period, that varies for each system.
One of the most splendid of these double stars, and at the same time one of the easiest to perceive, is ζ in the Great Bear, or Mizar, mentioned above in describing this constellation. It has no contrasting colors, but exactly resembles twin diamonds of the finest water, which fascinate the gaze, even through a small objective.
Its components are of the second and fourth magnitudes, their distance = 14″. Some idea of their appearance in a small telescope may be obtained from the subjoined figure (Fig. 17).
Another very brilliant pair is Castor. Magnitudes second and third. Distance 5.6″. Very easy to observe. γ in the Virgin resolves into two splendid diamonds of third magnitude. Distance, 5.0″. Another double star is γ of the Ram, of fourth magnitude. Distance, 8.9″.
And here are two that are even more curious by reason of their coloring: γ in Andromeda, composed of a fine orange star, and one emerald-green, which again is accompanied by a tiny comrade of the deepest blue. This group in a good telescope is most attractive. Magnitudes, second and fifth. Distance, 10″.
β of the Swan, or Albireo, referred to in the last chapter, has been analyzed into two stars: one golden-yellow, the other sapphire. Magnitudes, third and fifth. Distance, 34″. α of the Greyhounds, known also as the Heart of Charles II, is golden-yellow and lilac. Magnitudes, third and fifth. Distance 20″.
α of Hercules revolves a splendid emerald and a ruby in the skies; ζ of the Lyre exhibits a yellow and a green star; Rigel, an electric sun, and a small sapphire; Antares is ruddy and emerald-green; η of Perseus resolves into a burning red star, and one smaller that is deep blue, and so on.
These exquisite double stars revolve in gracious and splendid couples around one another, as in some majestic valse, marrying their multi-colored fires in the midst of the starry firmament.
Here, we constantly receive a pure and dazzling white light from our burning luminary. Its ray, indeed, contains the potentiality of every conceivable color, but picture the fantastic illumination of the worlds that gravitate round these multiple and colored suns as they shed floods of blue and roseate, red, or orange light around them! What a fairy spectacle must life present upon these distant universes!
Let us suppose that we inhabit a planet illuminated by two suns, one blue, the other red.
It is morning. The sapphire sun climbs slowly up the Heavens, coloring the atmosphere with a somber and almost melancholy hue. The blue disk attains the zenith, and is beginning its descent toward the West, when the East lights up with the flames of a scarlet sun, which in its turn ascends the heights of the firmament. The West is plunged in the penumbra of the rays of the blue sun, while the East is illuminated with the purple and burning rays of the ruby orb.
The first sun is setting when the second noon shines for the inhabitants of this strange world. But the red sun, too, accomplishes the law of its destiny. Hardly has it disappeared in the conflagration of its last rays, with which the West is flushed, when the blue orb reappears on the opposite side, shedding a pale azure light upon the world it illuminates, which knows no night. And thus these two suns fraternize in the Heavens over the common task of renewing a thousand effects of extra-terrestrial light for the globes that are subject to their variations.
Scarlet, indigo, green, and golden suns; pearly and multi-colored Moons; are these not fairy visions, dazzling to our poor sight, condemned while here below to see and know but one white Sun?
As we have learned, there are not only double, but triple, and also multiple stars. One of the finest ternary systems is that of γ in Andromeda, above mentioned. Its large star is orange, its second green, its third blue, but the two last are in close juxtaposition, and a powerful telescope is needed to separate them. A triple star more easy to observe is ζ of Cancer, composed of three orbs of fifth magnitude, at a distance of 1″ and 5″; the first two revolve round their common center of gravity in fifty-nine years, the third takes over three hundred years. The preceding figure shows this system in a fairly powerful objective (Fig. 18).
In the Lyre, a little above the dazzling Vega, ε is of fourth magnitude, which seems a little elongated to the unaided eye, and can even be analyzed into two contiguous stars by very sharp sight. But on examining this attractive pair with a small glass, it is further obvious that each of these stars is double; so that they form a splendid quadruple system of two couples (Fig. 19): one of fifth and a half and sixth magnitudes, at a distance of 2.4″, the other of sixth and seventh, 3.2″ distant. The distance between the two pairs is 207″.
In speaking of Orion, we referred to the marvelous star θ situated in the no less famous Nebula, below the Belt; this star forms a dazzling sextuple system, in the very heart of the nebula (Fig. 20). How different to our Sun, sailing through Space in modest isolation!
Be it noted that all these stars are animated by prodigious motions that impel them in every direction.
There are no fixed stars. On every side throughout Infinity, the burning suns—enormous globes, blazing centers of light and heat—are flying at giddy speed toward an unknown goal, traversing millions of miles each day, crossing century by century such vast spaces as are inconceivable to the human intellect.
If the stars appear motionless to us, it is because they are so remote, their secular movements being only manifested on the celestial sphere by imperceptible displacements. But in reality these suns are in perpetual commotion in the abysses of the Heavens, which they quicken with an extraordinary animation.
These perpetual and cumulative motions must eventually modify the aspect of the Constellations: but these changes will only take effect very slowly; and for thousands and thousands of years longer the heroes and heroines of mythology will keep their respective places in the Heavens, and reign undisturbed beneath the starry vault.
Examination of these star motions reveals the fact that our Sun is plunging with all his system (the Earth included) toward the Constellation of Hercules. We are changing our position every moment: in an hour we shall be 70,000 kilometers (43,500 miles) farther than we are at present. The Sun and the Earth will never again traverse the space they have just left, and which they have deserted forever.
And here let us pause for an instant to consider the variable stars. Our Sun, which is constant and uniform in its light, does not set the type of all the stars. A great number of them are variable—either periodically, in regular cycles—or irregularly.
We are already acquainted with the variations of Algol, in Perseus, due to its partial eclipse by a dark globe gravitating in the line of our vision. There are several others of the same type: these are not, properly speaking, variable stars. But there are many others the intrinsic light of which undergoes actual variations.
In order to realize this, let us imagine that our Earth belongs to such a sun, for example, to a star in the southern constellation of the Whale, indicated by the letter ο, which has been named the "wonderful" (Mira Ceti). Our new sun is shining to-day with a dazzling light, shedding the gladness of his joyous beams upon nature and in our hearts. For two months we admire the superb orb, sparkling in the azure illuminated with its radiance. Then of a sudden, its light fades, and diminishes in intensity, though the sky remains clear. Imperceptibly, our fine sun darkens; the atmosphere becomes sad and dull, there is an anticipation of universal death. For five long months our world is plunged in a kind of penumbra; all nature is saddened in the general woe.
But while we are bewailing the cruelty of our lot, our cherished luminary revives. The intensity of its light increases slowly. Its brilliancy augments, and finally, at the end of three months, it has recovered its former splendors, and showers its bright beams upon our world, flooding it with joy. But—we must not rejoice too quickly! This splendid blaze will not endure. The flaming star will pale once more; fade back to its minimum; and then again revive. Such is the nature of this capricious sun. It varies in three hundred and thirty-one days, and from yellow at the maximum, turns red at the minimum. This star, Mira Ceti, which is one of the most curious of its type, varies from the second to the ninth magnitudes: we cite it as one example; hundreds of others might be instanced.
Thus the sky is no black curtain dotted with brilliant points, no empty desert, silent and monotonous. It is a prodigious theater on which the most fantastic plays are continually being acted. Only—there are no spectators.
Again, we must note the temporary stars, which shine for a certain time, and then die out rapidly. Such was the star in Cassiopeia, in 1572, the light of which exceeded Sirius in its visibility in full daylight, burning for five months with unparalleled splendor, dominating all other stars of first magnitude; after which it died out gradually, disappearing at the end of seventeen months, to the terror of the peoples, who saw in it the harbinger of the world's end: that of 1604, in the Constellation of the Serpent, which shone for a year; of 1866, of second magnitude, in the Northern Crown, which appeared for a few weeks only; of 1876, in the Swan; of 1885, in the Nebula of Andromeda; of 1891, in the Charioteer; and quite recently, of 1901, in Perseus.
These temporary stars, which appear spontaneously to the observers on the Earth, and quickly vanish again, are doubtless due to collisions, conflagrations, or celestial cataclysms. But we only see them long after the epoch at which the phenomena occurred, years upon years, and centuries ago. For instance, the conflagration photographed by the author in 1901, in Perseus, must have occurred in the time of Queen Elizabeth. It has taken all this time for the rays of light to reach us.
The Heavens are full of surprises, on which we can bestow but a fleeting glance within these limits. They present a field of infinite variety.
Who has not noticed the Milky Way, the pale belt that traverses the entire firmament and is so luminous on clear evenings in the Constellations of the Swan and the Lyre? It is indeed a swarm of stars. Each is individually too small to excite our retina, but as a whole, curiously enough, they are perfectly visible. With opera-glasses we divine the starry constitution: a small telescope shows us marvels. Eighteen millions of stars were counted there with the gauges of William Herschel.
Now this Milky Way is a symbol, not of the Universe, but of the Universes that succeed each other through the vast spaces to Infinity.
Our Sun is a star of the Milky Way. It surrounds us like a great circle, and if the Earth were transparent, we should see it pass beneath our feet as well as over our heads. It consists of a very considerable mass of star-clusters, varying greatly in extent and number, some projected in front of others, while the whole forms an agglomeration.
Among this mass of star-groups, several thousands of which are already known to us, we will select one of the most curious, the Cluster in Hercules, which can be distinguished with the unaided eye, between the stars η and ζ of that constellation. Many photographs of it have been taken in the author's observatory at Juvisy, showing some thousands of stars; and one of these is reproduced in the accompanying figure (Fig. 21). Is it not a veritable universe?
Another of the most beautiful, on account of its regularity, is that of the Centaur (Fig. 22).
These groups often assume the most extraordinary shapes in the telescope, such as crowns, fishes, crabs, open mouths, birds with outspread wings, etc.
We must also note the gaseous nebulæ, universes in the making, e.g., the famous Nebula in Orion, of which we obtained some notion a while ago in connection with its sextuple star: and also that in Andromeda (Fig. 23).
Perhaps the most marvelous of all is that of the Greyhounds, which evolves in gigantic spirals round a dazzling focus, and then loses itself far off in the recesses of space. Fig. 24 gives a picture of it.
Without going thus far, and penetrating into telescopic depths, my readers can get some notion of these star-clusters with the help of a small telescope or opera-glasses, or even with the unaided eye, by looking at the beautiful group of the Pleiades, already familiar to us on another page, and using it as a test of vision. The little map subjoined (Fig. 25) will be an assistance in recognizing them, and in estimating their magnitudes, which are in the following order:
Good eyes distinguish the first six, sharp sight detects the three others.
In the times of the ancient Greeks, seven were accounted of equal brilliancy, and the poets related that the seventh star had fled at the time of the Trojan War. Ovid adds that she was mortified at not being embraced by a god, as were her six sisters. It is probable that only the best sight could then distinguish Pleione, as in our own day. The angular distance from Atlas to Pleione is 5′.
The length of this republic, from Atlas and Pleione to Celæno, is 4′/23″ of time, or 1°6′ of arc; the breadth, from Merope to Asterope, is 36′.
In the quadrilateral, the length from Alcyone to Electra is 36′, and the breadth from Merope to Maia 25′. To us it appears as though, if the Full Moon were placed in front of this group of nine stars, she would cover it entirely, for to the naked eye she appears much larger than all the Pleiades together. But this is not so. She only measures 31′, less than half the distance from Atlas to Celæno; she is hardly broader than the distance from Alcyone to Atlas, and could pass between Merope and Taygeta without touching either of these stars. This is a perennial and very curious optical illusion. When the Moon passes in front of the Pleiades, and occults them successively, it is hard to believe one's eyes. The fact occurred, e.g., on July 23, 1897, during a fine occultation observed at the author's laboratory of Juvisy (Fig. 26).
Photography here discovers to us, not 6, 9, 12, 15, or 20 stars, but hundreds and millions.
These are the most brilliant flowers of the celestial garden.
We, alas, can but glance at them rapidly. In contemplating them we are transported into immensities both of space and time, for the stellar periods measured by these distant universes often overpower in their magnitude the rapid years in which our terrestrial days are estimated. For instance, one of the double stars we spoke of above, γ of the Virgin, sees its two components, translucent diamonds, revolve around their common center of gravity, in one hundred and eighty years. How many events took place in France, let us say, in a single year of this star!—The Regency, Louis XV, Louis XVI, the Revolution, Napoleon, Louis XVIII, Louis Philippe, the Second Republic, Napoleon III, the Franco-German War, the Third Republic.... What revolutions here, during a single year of this radiant pair! (Fig. 27.)
But the pageant of the Heavens is too vast, too overwhelming. We must end our survey.
Our Milky Way, with its millions of stars, represents for us only a portion of the Creation. The illimitable abysses of Infinitude are peopled by other universes as vast, as imposing, as our own, which are renewed in all directions through the depths of Space to endless distance. Where is our little Earth? Where our Solar System? We are fain to fold our wings, and return from the Immense and Infinite to our floating island.