15° for every sidereal hour of this interval. For example, if the right ascension of a star is exactly 15°, it will pass the meridian one sidereal hour after the vernal equinox. For the relations thus arising, and their practical applications, see Time, Measurement of
Theoretical Astronomy is that branch of the science which, making use of the results of astronomical observations as they are supplied by the practical astronomer, investigates the motions of the heavenly bodies. In its most important features it is an offshoot of celestial mechanics, between which and theoretical astronomy no sharp dividing line can be drawn. While it is true that the one is concerned altogether with general theories, it is also true that these theories require developments and modifications to apply them to the numberless problems of astronomy, which we may place in either class.
Among the problems of theoretical astronomy we may assign the first place to the determination of orbits
), which is auxiliary to the prediction of the apparent motions of a planet, satellite or star. The computations involved in the process, while simple in some cases, are extremely complex in others. The orbit of a newly-discovered planet or comet may be computed from three complete observations by well-known methods in a single day. From the resulting elements of the orbit the positions of the body from day to day may be computed and tabulated in an ephemeris for the use of observers. But when definitive results as to the orbits are required, it is necessary to compute the perturbations produced by such of the major planets as have affected the motions of the body. With this complicated process is associated that of combining numerous observations with a view of obtaining the best definitive result. Speaking in a general way, we may say that computations pertaining to the orbital revolutions of double stars, as well as the bodies of our solar system, are to a greater or less extent of the classes we have described. The principal modification is that, up to the present time, stellar astronomy has not advanced so far that a computation of the perturbations in each case of a system of stars is either necessary or possible, except in exceptional cases.
Celestial Mechanics is, strictly speaking, that branch of applied mathematics which, by deductive processes, derives the laws of motion of the heavenly bodies from their gravitation towards each other, or from the mutual action of the parts which form them. The science had its origin in the demonstration by Sir Isaac Newton that Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, and the law of gravitation, in the case of two bodies, could be mutually derived from each other. A body can move round the sun in an elliptic orbit having the sun in its focus, and describing equal areas in equal times, only under the influence of a force directed towards the sun, and varying inversely as the square of the distance from it. Conversely, assuming this law of attraction, it can be shown that the planets will move according to Kepler’s laws.
Thus celestial mechanics may be said to have begun with Newton’s Principia. The development of the science by the successors of Newton, especially Laplace and Lagrange, may be classed among the most striking achievements of the human intellect. The precision with which the path of an eclipse is laid down years in advance cannot but imbue the minds of men with a high sense of the perfection reached by astronomical theories; and the discovery, by purely mathematical processes, of the changes which the orbits and motions of the planets are to undergo through future ages is more impressive the more fully one apprehends the nature of the problem. The purpose of the present article is to convey a general idea of the methods by which the results of celestial mechanics are reached, without entering into those technical details which can be followed only by a trained mathematician. It must be admitted that any intelligent comprehension of the subject requires at least a grasp of the fundamental conceptions of analytical geometry and the infinitesimal calculus, such as only one with some training in these subjects can be expected to have. This being assumed, the hope of the writer is that the exposition will afford the student an insight into the theory which may facilitate his orientation, and convey to the general reader with a certain amount of mathematical training a clear idea of the methods by which conclusions relating to it are drawn. The non-mathematical reader may possibly be able to gain some general idea, though vague, of the significance of the subject.
The fundamental hypothesis of the science assumes a system of bodies in motion, of which the sun and planets may be taken as examples, and of which each separate body is attracted toward all the others according to the law of Newton. The motion of each body is then expressed in the first place by Newton’s three laws of motion (see Motion, Laws of
, and Mechanics
). The first step in the process shows in a striking way the perfection of the analytic method. The conception of force is, so to speak, eliminated from the conditions of the problem, which is reduced to one of pure kinematics. At the outset, the position of each body, considered as a material particle, is defined by reference to a system of co-ordinate axes, and not by any verbal description. Differential equations which express the changes of the co-ordinates are then constructed. The process of discovering the laws of motion of the particle then consists in the integration of these equations. Such equations can be formed for a system of any number of bodies, but the process of integration in a rigorous form is possible only to a limited extent or in special cases.
The problems to be treated are of two classes. In one, the bodies are regarded as material particles, no account being taken of their dimensions. The earth, for example, may be regarded as a particle attracted by another more massive particle, the sun. In the other class of problems, the relative motion of the different parts of the separate bodies is considered; for example, the rotation of the earth on its axis, and the consequences of the fact that those parts of a body which are nearer to another body are more strongly attracted by it. Beginning with the first branch of the subject, the fundamental ideas which it is our purpose to convey are embodied in the simple case of only two bodies, which we may call the sun and a planet. In this case the two bodies really revolve round their common centre of gravity; but a very slight modification of the equations of motion reduces them to the relative motion of the planet round the sun, regarding the moving centre of the latter as the origin of co-ordinates. The motion of this centre, which arises from the attraction of the planet on the sun, need not be considered.
In the actual problems of celestial mechanics three co-ordinates necessarily enter, leading to three differential equations and six equations of solution. But the general principles of the problem are completely exemplified with only two bodies, in which case the motion takes place in a fixed plane. By taking this plane, which is that of the orbit in which the planet performs its revolution, as the plane of xy, we have only two co-ordinates to consider. Let us use the following notation:
x, y, the co-ordinates of the planet relative to the sun as the origin.
M, m, the masses of the attracting bodies, sun and planet.
r, the distance apart of the two bodies, or the radius vector of m relative to M. This last quantity is analytically defined by the equation—
t, the time, reckoned from any epoch we choose.
The differential equations which completely determine the changes in the co-ordinates x and y, or the motion of m relative to M, are:—
These formulae are worthy of special attention. They are the expression in the language of mathematics of Newton’s first two laws of motion. Their statement in this language may be regarded as perfect, because it completely and unambiguously expresses the naked phenomena of the motion. The equations do this without expressing any conception, such as that of force, not associated with the actual phenomena. Moreover, as a third advantage, these expressions are entirely free from those difficulties and ambiguities which are met with in every attempt to express the laws of motion in ordinary language. They afford yet another great advantage in that the derivation of the results requires only the analytic operations of the infinitesimal calculus.
The power and spirit of the analytic method will be appreciated by showing how it expresses the relations of motion as they were conceived geometrically by Newton and Kepler. It is quite evident that Kepler’s laws do not in themselves enable us to determine the actual motion of the planets. We must have, in addition, in the case of each special planet, certain specific facts, viz. the axes and eccentricity of the ellipse, and the position of the plane in which it lies. Besides these, we must have given the position of the planet in the orbit at some specified moment. Having these data, the position of the planet at any other time may be geometrically constructed by Kepler’s laws. The third law enables us to compute the time taken by the radius vector to sweep over the entire area of the orbit, which is identical with the time of revolution. The problem of constructing successive radii vectores, the angles of which are measured off from the radius vector of the body at the original given position, is then a geometric one, known as Kepler’s problem.
In the analytic process these specific data, called elements of the