The Comets

Shooting Stars, Bolides, Uranoliths or Meteoric Stones

What marvels have been reviewed by our dazzled eyes since the outset of these discussions! We first surveyed the magnificent host of stars that people the vast firmament of Heaven; next we admired and wondered at suns very differently constituted from our own; then returning from the depths of space, crossing at a bound the abyss that separates us from these mysterious luminaries, the distant torches of our somber

night, terrible suns of infinity, we landed on our own beloved orb, the superb and brilliant day-star. Thence we visited his celestial family, his system, in which our Earth is a floating island. But the journey would be incomplete if we omitted certain more or less vagabond orbs, that occasionally approach the Sun and Earth, some of which may even collide with us upon their celestial path. These are in the first place the comets, then the shooting stars, the fire-balls, and meteorites.

Glittering, swift-footed heralds of Immensity, these comets with golden wings glide lightly through Space, shedding a momentary illumination by their presence. Whence come they? Whither are they bound?

What problems they propound to us, when, as in some beautiful display of pyrotechnics, the arch of Heaven is illuminated with their fantastic light!

But first of all—what is a Comet?

If instead of living in these days of the telescope, of spectrum analysis, and of astral photography, we were anterior to Galileo, and to the liberation of the human spirit by Astronomy, we should reply that the comet is an object of terror, a dangerous menace that appears to mortals in the purity of the immaculate Heavens, to announce the most fatal misfortunes to the inhabitants of our planet. Is a comet visible in the Heavens? The reigning prince may make his testament and prepare to die. Another apparition in the firmament bodes war, famine, the advent of grievous pestilence. The astrologers had an open field, and their fertile imagination might hazard every possible conjecture, seeing that misfortunes, great or small, are not altogether rare in this sublunar world.

How many intellects, and those not the most vulgar, from antiquity to the middle of the last century cursed the apparition of these hirsute stars, which brought desolation to the heart of man, and poured their fatal effluvia upon the head of poor Humanity. The history of the superstitions and fears that they inspired of old would furnish matter for the most thrilling of romances. But, on the other hand, the volume would be little flattering to the common-sense of our ancestors. Despite the respect we owe our forefathers, let us recall for a moment the prejudices attaching to the most famous comets whose passage, as observed from the Earth, has been preserved to us in history.

Fig. 49.—Great Comet of 1858. Fig. 49.—Great Comet of 1858.

Without going back to the Deluge, we note that the Romans established a relation between the Great Comet of 43 B.C. and the death of Cæsar, who had been assassinated a few months previously. It was, they asserted, the soul of their great Captain, transported to Heaven to reign in the empyrean after ruling here below. Were not the Emperors Lords of both Earth and Heaven?

We must in justice recognize that certain more independent spirits emancipated themselves from these superstitions, and we may cite the reply of Vespasian to his friends, who were alarmed at the evil presage of a flaming comet: "Fear nothing," he said, "this bearded star concerns me not; rather should it threaten my neighbor the King of the Parthians, since he is hairy and I am bald."

In the year 837 one of these mysterious visitants appeared in the Heavens. It was in the reign of Lewis the Debonair. Directly the King perceived the comet, he sent for an astrologer, and asked what he was to conclude from the apparition. As the answers were unsatisfactory he tried to avert the augury by prayers to Heaven, by ordaining a general fast to all his Court, and by building churches. Notwithstanding, he died three years later, and the historians profited by this slender coincidence to set up a correlation between the fatal star and the death of the Sovereign. This comet, famous in history, is no other than that of Halley, in one of its appearances.

This comet returned to explore the realms near the Sun in 1066, at the moment when William of Normandy was undertaking the Conquest of England, and was misguided enough to go across and reign in London, instead of staying at home and annexing England, thus by his action founding the everlasting rivalry between France and this island. A beneficial influence was attributed to the comet in the Battle of Hastings.

A few centuries later it again came into sight from the Earth, in 1456, three years after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. Feeling ran high in Europe, and this celestial omen was taken for a proof of the anger of the Almighty. The moment was decisive; the Christians had to be rescued from a struggle in which they were being worsted. At this conjuncture, Pope Calixtus resuscitated a prayer that had fallen into disuse, the Angelus; and ordered that the bells of the churches should be rung each day at noon, that the Faithful might join at the same hour in prayer against the Turks and the Comet. This custom has lasted down to our own day.

Again, to the comet of 1500 was attributed the tempest that caused the death of Bartholomew Diaz, a celebrated Portuguese navigator, who discovered the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1528 a bearded star of terrific aspect alarmed the world, and the more serious spirits were influenced by this menacing comet, which burned in the Heavens like "a great and gory sword." In a chapter on Celestial Monsters the celebrated surgeon Ambroise Paré describes this awful phenomenon in terms anything but seductive, or reassuring, showing us the menacing sword surrounded by the heads it had cut off (Fig. 50).

Fig. 50.—What our Ancestors saw in a Comet. Fig. 50.—What our Ancestors saw in a Comet.

After Ambroise Paré (1528).

Fig. 51.—Prodigies seen in the Heavens by our Forefathers. Fig. 51.—Prodigies seen in the Heavens by our Forefathers.

Omens of battle, 1547.

Deer and warriors, July 19, 1550.

Cavalry, and a bloody branch crossing the sun, June 11, 1554.]

Our fathers saw many other prodigies in the skies; their descendants, less credulous, can study the facsimile reproduced in Fig. 51, of the drawings published in the year 1557 by Conrad Lycosthenes in his curious Book of Prodigies.

So, too, it is asserted that Charles V renounced the jurisdiction of his Estates, which were so vast that "the Sun never slept upon them," because he was terrified by the comet of 1556 which burned in the skies with an alarming brilliancy, into passing the rest of his days in prayer and devotion.

It is certain that comets often exhibit very strange characteristics, but the imagination that sees in them such dramatic figures must indeed be lively. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance these were swords of fire, bloody crosses, flaming daggers, etc., all horrible objects ready to destroy our poor human race!

At the time of the Romans, Pliny made some curious distinctions between them: "The Bearded Ones let loose their hair like a majestic beard; the Javelin darts forth like an arrow; if the tail is shorter and ends in a point, it is called the Sword; this is the palest of all the Comets; it shines like a sword, without rays; the Plate or Disk is named in conformity with its figure; its color is amber, the Barrel is actually shaped like a barrel, as it might be in smoke, with light streaming through it; the Horn imitates the figure of a horn erected in the sky, and the Lamp that of a burning flame; the Equine represents a horse's mane, shaken violently with a circular motion. There are bristled comets; these resemble the skins of beasts with the fur on them, and are surrounded by a nebulosity. Lastly, the tails of certain comets have been seen to menace the sky in the form of a lance."

These hairy orbs that appear in all directions, and whose trajectories are sometimes actually perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic, appear to obey no regular law. Even in the seventeenth century the perspicacious Kepler had not divined their true character, seeing in them, like most of his contemporaries, emanations from the earth, a sort of vapor, losing itself in space. These erratic orbs could not be assimilated with the other members of our grand solar family where, generally speaking, everything goes on in regular order.

And even in our own times, have we not seen the people terrified at the sight of a flaming comet? Has not the end of the world by the agency of comets been often enough predicted? These predictions are so to speak periodic; they crop up each time that the return of these cosmical formations is announced by the astronomers, and always meet with a certain number of timid souls who are troubled as to our destinies.

To-day we know that these wanderers are subject to the general laws that govern the universe. The great Newton announced that, like the planets, they were obedient to universal attraction; that they must follow an extremely elongated curve, and return periodically to the focus of the ellipse. From the basis of these data Halley calculated the progress of the comet of 1682, and ascertained that its motions presented such similarity with the apparitions of 1531 and 1607, that he believed himself justified in identifying them and in announcing its return about the year 1759. Faithful to the call made upon it, irresistibly attracted by the Orb of Day, the comet, at first pale, then ardent and incandescent, returned at the date assigned to it by calculation, three years after the death of the illustrious astronomer. Shining upon his grave it bore witness to the might of human thought, able to snatch the profoundest secrets from the Heavens!

This fine comet returns every seventy-six years, to be visible from the Earth, and has already been seen twenty-four times by the astonished eyes of man. It appears, however, to be diminishing in magnitude. Its last appearance was in 1835, and we shall see it again in 1910, a little sooner than its average period, the attraction of Jupiter having this time slightly accelerated its course, while in 1759 it retarded it.

The comets thus follow a very elongated orbit, either elliptic, turning round the Sun, or parabolic, dashing out into space. In the first case, they are periodic (Fig. 52), and their return can be calculated. In the second they surprise us unannounced, and return to the abysses of eternity to reappear no more.

Fig. 52.—The orbit of a Periodic Comet. Fig. 52.—The orbit of a Periodic Comet.

Their speed is even greater than that of the planets, it is equivalent to this, multiplied by the square root of 2, that is to say by 1.414. Thus at the distance of the Earth from the Sun this velocity = 29,500 meters (18 miles) per second, multiplied by the above number, that is, 41,700 meters (over 25 miles). At the distance of Mercury it = 47 × 1.414 or 66,400 meters (over 40 miles) per second.

Among the numerous comets observed, we do not as yet know more than some twenty of which the orbit has been determined. Periodicity in these bearded orbs is thus exceptional, if we think of the innumerable multitude of comets that circle through the Heavens. Kepler did not exaggerate when he said "there are as many comets in the skies as there are fishes in the sea." These scouts of the sidereal world constitute a regular army, and if we are only acquainted with the dazzling generals clad in gold, it is because the more modest privates can only be detected in the telescope. Long before the invention of the latter, these wanderers in the firmament roamed through space as in our own day, but they defied the human eye, too weak to detect them. Then they were regarded as rare and terrible objects that no one dared to contemplate. To-day they may be counted by hundreds. They have lost in prestige and in originality; but science is the gainer, since she has thus endowed the solar system with new members. No year passes without the announcement of three or four new arrivals. But the fine apparitions that attract general attention by their splendor are rare enough.

These eccentric visitors do not resemble the planets, for they have no opaque body like the Earth, Venus, Mars, or any of the rest. They are transparent nebulosities, of extreme lightness, without mass nor density. We have just photographed the comet of the moment, July, 1903: the smallest stars are visible through its tail, and even through the nucleus.

They arrive in every direction from the depths of space, as though to reanimate themselves in the burning, luminous, electric solar center.

Attracted by some potent charm toward this dazzling focus, they come inquisitive and ardent, to warm themselves at its furnace. At first pale and feeble, they are born again when the Sun caresses them with his fervid heat. Their motions accelerate, they haste to plunge wholly into the radiant light. At length they burst out luminous and superb, when the day-star penetrates them with his burning splendor, illuminates them with a marvelous radiance, and crowns them with glory. But the Sun is generous. Having showered benefits upon these gorgeous celestial butterflies that flutter round him as round some altar of the gods, he grants them liberty to visit other heavens, to seek fresh universes....

The original parabola is converted into an ellipse, if the imprudent adventurer in returning to the Sun passes near some great planet, such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune, and suffers its attraction. It is then imprisoned by our system, and can no longer escape from it. After reenforcement at the solar focus, it must return to the identical point at which it felt the first pangs of a new destiny. Henceforward, it belongs to our celestial family, and circles in a closed curve. Otherwise, it is free to continue its rapid course toward other suns and other systems.

As a rule, the telescope shows three distinct parts in a comet. There is first the more brilliant central point, or nucleus, surrounded by a nebulosity called the hair, or brush, and prolonged in a luminous appendix stretching out into the tail. The head of the comet is the brush and the nucleus combined.

Fig. 53.—The tails of Comets are opposed to the Sun. Fig. 53.—The tails of Comets are opposed to the Sun.

It is usually supposed that the tail of a comet follows it throughout the course of its peregrinations. Nothing of the kind. The appendix may even precede the nucleus; it is always opposite the Sun,—that is to say, it is situated on the prolongation of a straight line, starting from the Sun, and passing through the nucleus (Fig. 53). The tail does not exist, so long as the comet is at a distance from the orb of day; but in approaching the Sun, the nebulosity is heated and dilates, giving birth to those mysterious tails and fantastic streamers whose dimensions vary considerably for each comet. The dilations and transformations undergone by the tail suggest that they may be due to a repulsive force emanating from the Sun, an electric charge transmitted doubtless through the ether. It is as though Phœbus blew upon them with unprecedented force.

Telescopic comets are usually devoid of tail, even when they reach the vicinity of the Sun. They appear as pale nebulosities, rounded or oval, more condensed toward the center, without, however, showing any distinct nucleus. These stars are only visible for a minute fraction of their course, when they reach a point not far from the Sun and the terrestrial orbit.

The finest comets of the last century were those of 1811, 1843, 1858, 1861, 1874, 1880, 1881, and 1882. The Great Comet of 1811, after spreading terror over certain peoples, notably in Russia, became the providence of the vine-growers. As the wine was particularly good and abundant that year, the peasants attributed this happy result to the influence of the celestial visitant.

In 1843 one of these strange messengers from the Infinite appeared in our Heavens. It was so brilliant that it was visible in full daylight on February 28th, alongside of the Sun. This splendid comet was accompanied by a marvelous rectilinear tail measuring 300,000,000 kilometers (186,000,000 miles) in length, and its flight was so rapid that it turned the solar hemisphere at perihelion in two hours, representing a speed of 550 kilometers (342 miles) a second.

But the most curious fact is that this radiant apparition passed so near the Sun that it must have traversed its flames, and yet emerged from them safe and sound.

Noteworthy also was the comet of 1858 (Fig. 49), discovered at Florence by Donati. Its tail extended to a length of 90,000,000 kilometers (55,900,000 miles), and its nucleus had a diameter of at least 900 kilometers (559 miles). It is a curious coincidence that the wine was remarkably excellent and abundant in that year also.

The comet of 1861 almost rivaled the preceding.

Coggia's Comet, in 1874, was also remarkable for its brilliancy, but was very inferior to the last two. Finally, the latest worthy of mention appeared in 1882. This magnificent comet also touched the Sun, traveling at a speed of 480 kilometers (299 miles) per second. It crossed the gaseous atmosphere of the orb of day, and then continued its course through infinity. On the day of, and that following, its perihelion, it could be detected with the unaided eye in full daylight, enthroned in the Heavens beside the dazzling solar luminary. For the rest, it was neither that of 1858 nor of 1861.

Since 1882 we have not been favored with a visit from any fine comet; but we are prepared to give any such a reception worthy of their magnificence: first, because now that we have fathomed them we are no longer awestruck; second, because we would gladly study them more closely.

In short, these hirsute stars, whose fantastic appearance impressed the imagination of our ancestors so vividly, are no longer formidable. Their mass is inconsiderable; they seem to consist mainly of the lightest of gases. Analysis of their incandescence reveals a spectrum closely resembling that of many nebulæ; the presence of carbon is more particularly obvious. Even the nucleus is not solid, and is often transparent.

It is fair to say that the action of a comet might be deleterious if one of these orbs were to arrive directly upon us. The transformation of motion into heat, and the combination of the cometary gases with the oxygen of our atmosphere might produce a conflagration, or a general poisoning of the atmosphere.

But the collision of a comet with a planet is almost an impossibility. This phenomenon could only occur if the comet crossed the planetary orbit at the exact moment at which the planet was passing. When we think of the immensity of space, of the extraordinary length of way traversed by a world in its annual journey round the Sun, and the speed of its rotation, we see why this coincidence is hardly likely to occur. Thus, among the hundreds of comets catalogued, a few only cut the terrestrial orbit. One of them, that of 1832, traversed the path of our globe in the nights of October 29 and 30 in that year; but the Earth only passed the same point thirty days later, and at the critical period was more than 80,000,000 kilometers (50,000,000 miles) away from the comet.

On June 30, 1861, however, the Earth passed through the extremity of the tail of the Great Comet of that year. No one even noticed it. The effects were doubtless quite immaterial.

In 1872 we were to collide with Biela's Comet, lost since 1852; now, as we shall presently see, we came with flying colors out of that disagreeable situation, because the comet had disintegrated, and was reduced to powder. So we may sleep in peace as regards future danger likely to come to us from comets. There is little fear of the destruction of humanity by these windy bags.

These ethereal beauties whose blond locks float carelessly upon the azure night are not concerned with us; they seem to have no other preoccupation than to race from sun to sun, visiting new Heavens, indifferent to the astonishment they produce in us. They speed restlessly and tirelessly through infinity; they are the Amazons of space.

What suns, what worlds must they have visited since the moment of their birth! If these splendid fugitives could relate the story of their wanderings, how gladly should we listen to the enchanting descriptions of the various abodes they have journeyed to! But alas! these mysterious explorers are dumb; they tell none of their secrets, and we must needs respect their enigmatic silence.

Yet, some of them have left us a modest token of remembrance, an almost impalpable nothing, sufficient, however, to enable us to address our thanks to the considerate messenger.

Can there be any one upon the Earth who has not been struck by the phosphorescent lights that glide through the somber night, leaving a brilliant silver or golden track—the luminous, ephemeral trail of a meteor?

Sometimes, when Night has silently spread the immensity of her wings above the weary Earth, a shining speck is seen to detach itself in the shades of evening from the starry vault, shooting lightly through the constellations to lose itself in the infinitude of space.

Fig. 54.—A Meteor. Fig. 54.—A Meteor.

These bewitching sparks attract our eyes and chain our senses. Fascinating celestial fireflies, their dainty flames dart in every direction through space, sowing the fine dust of their gilded wings upon the fields of Heaven. They are born to die; their life is only a breath; yet the impression which they make upon the imagination of mortals is of the profoundest.

The young girl dreaming in the delicious tranquillity of the transparent night smiles at this charming sister in the Heavens (Fig. 54). What can not this adorable star announce to the tender and loving heart? Is it the shy messenger of the happiness so long desired? Its unpremeditated appearance fills the soul with a ray of hope and makes it tremble. It is a golden beam that glides into the heart, expanding it in the thrills of a sudden and ephemeral pleasure.... The radiant meteor seems to quit the velvet of the deep blue sky to respond to the appeal of the imploring voice that seeks its succor.

What secrets has it not surprised! And who bears malice against it? It is the friend of the betrothed who invoke its passage to confide their wishes, and associate it with their dreams. Tradition holds that if a wish be formulated during the visible passage of a meteor it will certainly be fulfilled before the year is out. Between ourselves, however, this is but a surviving figment of the ancestral imagination, for this celestial jewel takes no such active part in the doings of Humanity.... Besides, try to express a wish distinctly in a second!

It is a curious fact that while comets have so often spread terror on the Earth, shooting stars should on the contrary have been regarded with benevolent feelings at all times. And what is a shooting star? These dainty excursionists from the celestial shores are not, as is supposed, true stars. They are atoms, nothings, minute fragments deriving in general from the disintegration of comets. They come to us from a vast distance, from millions on millions of miles, and circle in swarms around the Sun, following a very elongated ellipse which closely resembles that of the cometary orbit. Their flight is extremely rapid, reaching sometimes more than 40 kilometers (25 miles) per second, a cometary speed that is, as we have seen, greatly above that of our terrestrial vehicle, which amounts to 29 to 30 kilometers (about 19 miles).

These little corpuscles are not intrinsically luminous; but when the orbit of a swarm of meteors crosses our planet, a violent shock arises, the speed of which may be as great as 72 kilometers (45 miles) in the first second if we meet the star shower directly; the average rate, however, does not exceed 30 to 40 kilometers (19 to 25 miles), for these meteors nearly always cross our path obliquely. The height at which they arrive is usually 110 kilometers (68 miles), and 80 kilometers (50 miles) at the moment of disappearance of the meteor; but shooting stars have been observed at 300 kilometers (186 miles).

The friction caused by this collision high up in the atmosphere transforms the motion into heat. The molecules incandesce, and burn like true stars with a brilliancy that is often magnificent.

But their glory is of short duration. The excessive heat resulting from the shock consumes the poor firefly; its remains evaporate, and drop slowly to the Earth, where they are deposited on the surface of the soil in a sort of ferruginous dust mixed with carbon and nickel. Some one hundred and forty-six milliards of them reach us annually, as seen by the unaided eye, and many more in the telescope; the effect of these showers of meteoric matter is an insensible increase in the mass of our globe, a slight lessening of its rotary motion, and the acceleration of the lunar movements of revolution.

Although the appearance of shooting stars is a common enough phenomenon, visible every night of the year, there are certain times when they arrive in swarms, from different quarters of the sky. The most remarkable dates in this connection are the night of August 10th and the morning of November 14th. Every one knows the shooting stars of August 10th, because they arrive in the fine warm summer evenings so favorable to general contemplation of the Heavens. The phenomenon lasts till the 12th, and even beyond, but the maximum is on the 10th. When the sky is very clear, and there is no moon, hundreds of shooting stars can be counted on those three nights, sometimes thousands. They all seem to come from the same quarter of the Heavens, which is called the radiant, and is situated for the August swarm in the constellation of Perseus, whence they have received the name of Perseids. Our forefathers also called them the tears of St. Lawrence, because the feast of that saint is on the same date. These shooting stars describe a very elongated ellipse, and their orbit has been identified with that of the Great Comet of 1862.

The shower of incandescent asteroids on November 14th is often much more abundant than the preceding. In 1799, 1833, and 1866, the meteors were so numerous that they were described as showers of rain, especially on the first two dates. For several hours the sky was furrowed with falling stars. An English mariner, Andrew Ellicot, who made the drawing we reproduce (Fig. 55), described the phenomenon as stupendous and alarming (November 12, 1799, 3 A.M.). The same occurred on November 13, 1833. The meteors that scarred the Heavens on that night were reckoned at 240,000. These shooting stars received the name of Leonids, because their radiant is situated in the constellation of the Lion.

Fig. 55.—Shooting Stars of November 12, 1799. Fig. 55.—Shooting Stars of November 12, 1799.

From a contemporary drawing.

This swarm follows the same orbit as the comet of 1866, which travels as far as Uranus, and comes back to the vicinity of the Sun every thirty-three years. Hence we were entitled to expect another splendid apparition in 1899, but the expectations of the astronomers were disappointed. All the preparations for the appropriate reception of these celestial visitors failed to bring about the desired result. The notes made in observatories, or in balloons, admitted of the registration of only a very small number of meteors. The maximum was thirteen. During that night, some 200 shooting stars were counted. There were more in 1900, 1901, and, above all, in 1902. This swarm has become displaced.

The night of November 27th again is visited by a number of shooting stars that are the disaggregated remains of the Comet of Biela. This comet, discovered by Biela in 1827, accomplished its revolution in six and a half years, and down to 1846 it responded punctually to the astronomers who expected its return as fixed by calculation. But on January 13, 1846, the celestial wanderer broke in half: each fragment went its own way, side by side, to return within sight from the Earth in 1852. It was their last appearance. That year the twin comets could still be seen, though pale and insignificant. Soon they vanished into the depths of night, and never appeared again. They were looked for in vain, and were despaired of, when on November 27, 1872, instead of the shattered comet, came a magnificent rain of shooting stars. They fell through the Heavens, numerous as the flakes of a shower of snow.

The same phenomenon recurred on November 27, 1885, and confirmed the hypothesis of the demolition and disaggregation of Biela's Comet into shooting stars.

There is an immense variety in the brilliancy of the shooting stars, from the weak telescopic sparks that vanish like a flash of lightning, to the incandescent bolides or fire-balls that explode in the atmosphere.

Fig. 56 shows an example of these, and it represents a fire-ball observed at the Observatory of Juvisy on the night of August 10, 1899. It arrived from Cassiopeia, and burst in Cepheus.

This phenomenon may occur by day as well as by night. It is often accompanied by one or several explosions, the report of which is sometimes perceptible to a considerable distance, and by a shower of meteorites. The globe of fire bursts, and splits up into luminous fragments, scattered in all directions. The different parts of the fire-ball fall to the surface of the Earth, under the name of aerolites, or rather of uranoliths, since they arrive from the depths of space, and not from our atmosphere.

From the most ancient times we hear of showers of uranoliths to which popular superstitions were attached; and the Greeks even gave the name of Sideros to iron, the first iron used having been sidereal.

Fig. 56.—Fire-Ball seen from the Observatory at Juvisy, August 10, 1899. Fig. 56.—Fire-Ball seen from the Observatory at Juvisy, August 10, 1899.

Fig. 57.—Explosion of a Fire-Ball above Madrid, February 10, 1896. Fig. 57.—Explosion of a Fire-Ball above Madrid, February 10, 1896.

No year passes without the announcement of several showers of uranoliths, and the phenomenon sometimes causes great alarm to those who witness it. One of the most remarkable explosions is that which occurred above Madrid, February 10, 1896, a fragment from which, sent me by M. Arcimis, Director of the Meteorological Institute, fell immediately in front of the National Museum (Fig. 57). The phenomenon occurred at 9.30 A.M., in brilliant sunshine. The flash of the explosion was so dazzling that it even illuminated the interior of the houses; an alarming clap of thunder was heard seventy seconds after, and it was believed that an explosion of dynamite had occurred. The fire-ball burst at a height of fourteen miles, and was seen as far as 435 miles from Madrid!

In one of Raphael's finest pictures (The Madonna of Foligno) a fire-ball may be seen beneath a rainbow (Fig. 58), the painter wishing to preserve the remembrance of it, as it fell near Milan, on September 4, 1511. This picture dates from 1512.

The dimensions of these meteorites vary considerably; they are of all sizes, from the impalpable dust that floats in the air, to the enormous blocks exposed in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Many of them weigh several million pounds. That represented below fell in Mexico during the shower of meteors of November 27, 1885. It weighed about four pounds.

Fig. 58.—Raphael's Fire-Ball (The Madonna of Foligno). Fig. 58.—Raphael's Fire-Ball (The Madonna of Foligno).

These bolides and uranoliths come to us from the depths of space; but they do not appear to have the same origin as the shooting stars. They may arise from worlds destroyed by explosion or shock, or even from planetary volcanoes. The lightest of them may have been expelled from the volcanoes of the Moon. Some of the most massive, in which iron predominates, may even have issued from the bowels of the Earth, projected into space by some volcanic explosion, at an epoch when our globe was perpetually convulsed by cataclysms of extraordinary violence. They return to us to-day after being removed from the Earth to distances proportional to the initial speed imparted to them. This origin seems the more admissible as the stones that fall from the skies exhibit a mineral composition identical with that of the terrestrial materials.

Fig. 59.—A Uranolith. Fig. 59.—A Uranolith.

In any case, these uranoliths bring us back at least by their fall to our Earth, and from henceforward we will remain upon it, to study its position in space, and to take account of the place it fills in the Universe, and of the astronomical laws that govern our destiny.