Page:Amazing Stories Volume 01 Number 02.djvu/76

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171
OFF ON A COMET

rotation, and revolves at a distance of 2,314,000 miles.

Another most important contribution to the magnificence of the nights upon Saturn is the triple ring with which, as a brilliant setting, the planet is encompassed. To an observer at the equator, this ring, which has been estimated by Sir William Herschel as scarcely 100 miles in thickness, must have the appearance of a narrow band of light passing through the zenith 12,000 miles above his head. As the observer, however, increases his latitude either north or south, the band will gradually widen out into three detached and concentric rings, of which the innermost, dark though transparent, is 9,625 miles in breadth; the intermediate one, which is brighter than the planet itself, being 17,605 miles broad; and the outer, of a dusky hue, being 8,660 miles broad.

Such, they read, is the general outline of this strange appendage, which revolves in its own plane in 10 hours 32 minutes. Of what matter it is composed, and how it resists disintegration, is still an unsettled question; but it might almost seem that the Designer of the universe, in permitting its existence, had been willing to impart to His intelligent creatures the manner in which celestial bodies are evolved, and that this remarkable ring-system is a remnant of the nebula from which Saturn was himself developed, and which, from some unknown cause, has become solidified. If at any time it should disperse, it would either fall into fragments upon the surface of Saturn, or the fragments, mutually coalescing, would form additional satellites to circle round the planet in its path.

To an observer stationed on the planet, between the extremes of lat. 45° on either side of the equator, these wonderful rings would present various strange phenomena. Sometimes they would appear as an illuminated arch, with the shadow of Saturn passing over it like the hour-hand over a dial; at other times they would be like a semi-aureole of light. Very often, too, for periods of several years, daily eclipses of the sun must occur through the interposition of this triple ring.

Truly, with the constant rising and setting of the satellites, some with bright discs at their full, others like silver crescents, in quadrature, as well as by the encircling rings, the aspect of the heavens from the surface of Saturn must be as impressive as it is gorgeous.

The Gallians indeed, were unable to realize all the marvels of this strange world. After all, they were practically a thousand times further off than the great astronomers were able to approach by means of their giant telescopes. But they did not complain; their little comet, they knew, was far safer where it was; far better out of the reach of an attraction which, by affecting their path, might have annihilated their best hopes.

The distances of several of the brightest of the fixed stars have been estimated. Amongst others, Vega in the constellation Lyra is 100 millions of millions of miles away; Sirius in Canis Major, 123 millions of millions; the Pole star, 282 millions of millions; and Capella, 340 millions of millions of miles, a figure represented by no less than fifteen digits.

The hard numerical statement of these enormous figures, however, fails altogether in any adequate way to convey a due impression of the magnitude of these distances. Astronomers, in their ingenuity, have endeavored to use some other basis, and have found "the velocity of light" to be convenient for their purpose. They have made their representations something in this way:

"Suppose," they say, "an observer endowed with and infinite length of vision: suppose him stationed on the surface of Cappella; looking thence towards the earth, he would be a spectator of events that had happened seventy years previously; transport him to a star ten times distant, and he will be reviewing the terrestrial sphere of 720 years back; carry him away further still, to a star so remote that it requires something less than nineteen centuries for light to reach it,[1] and he would be a witness of the birth and death of Christ; convey him further again, and he shall be looking upon the dread desolation of the Deluge; take him away further yet (for space is infinite), and he shall be a spectator of the Creation of the spheres. History is thus stereotyped in space; nothing once accomplished can ever be effaced."

Who can altogether be astonished that Palmyrin Rosette, with his burning thirst for astronomical research, should have been conscious of a longing for yet wider travel through the sidereal universe? With his comet now under the influence of one star, now of another, what various systems might he not have explored! what undreamed-of marvels might not have revealed themselves before his gaze! The stars, fixed and immovable in name, are all of them in motion, and Gallia might have followed them in their untracked way.

But Gallia had a narrow destiny. She was not to be allowed to wander away into the range of attraction of another center; nor to mingle with the star clusters, some of which have been entirely, others partially resolved; nor was she to lose herself amongst the 5,000 nebulæ which have resisted hitherto the grasp of the most powerful reflectors. No; Gallia was neither to pass beyond the limits of the solar system, nor to travel out of sight of the terrestrial sphere. Her orbit was circumscribed to little over 1,500 millions of miles; and in comparison with the infinite space beyond, this was a mere nothing.


CHAPTER XI

A FETE DAY

THE temperature continued to decrease; the mercurial thermometer, which freezes at 42° below zero, was no longer of service, and the spirit thermometer of the Dobryna had been brought into use. This now registered 53° below freezing-point.

In the creek, where the two vessels had been moored for the winter, the elevation of the ice, in anticipation of which Lieutenant Procope had taken the precautionary measure of beveling, was going on slowly but irresistibly, and the tartan was upheaved fifty feet above the level of the Gallian Sea, while the schooner, as being lighter, had been raised to a still greater altitude.

So irresistible was this gradual process of elevation, so utterly defying all human power to arrest, that the lieutenant began to feel very anxious as to the safety of his yacht. With the exception of
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  1. This book appeared in the Nineteenth Century.