Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

from the arc of a parabola. An obvious but not sharp classification of comets is into bright comets visible to the naked eye, and telescopic comets which can be seen only with a telescope. The telescopic class is much the more numerous of the two, only from 20 to 30 bright comets usually appearing in any one century, while several telescopic comets, frequently 6 or 8, are generally observed in the course of a year.

A bright comet consists of (1) a star-like nucleus; (2) a nebulous haze, called the coma, surrounding this nucleus, the latter fading into the haze by insensible gradations; (3) a tail or luminous stream flowing from the coma in a direction opposite to that of the sun. The nuclei and comae of different comets exhibit few peculiarities to the unaided vision except in respect to brightness; but the tails of comets differ widely, both in brightness and in extent. They range from a barely visible brush or feather of light to a phenomenon extending over a considerable arc of the heavens, which, comparatively bright near the head of the comet, becomes gradually fainter and more diffuse towards its end, fading out by gradations so insensible that a precise length cannot be assigned to it. When a telescopic comet is first discovered the nucleus is frequently invisible, the object presenting the appearance of a faint nebulous haze, scarcely distinguishable in aspect from a nebula. When the nucleus appears it may at first be only a comparatively faint condensation, and may or may not develop into a point of light as the comet approaches the sun. A tail also is generally not seen at great distances from the sun, but gradually develops as the comet approaches perihelion, to fade away again as the comet recedes from the sun.

A few comets are known to revolve in orbits with a regular period, while, in the case of others, no evidence is afforded by observation that the orbit deviates from a parabola. Were the orbit a parabola or hyperbola the comet would never return (see Orbit). Periodicity may be recognized in two ways: observations during the apparition may show that the motion is in an elliptic and not in a parabolic orbit; or a comet may have been observed at more than one return. In the latter case the comet is recognized as distinctly periodic, and therefore a member of the solar system. The shortest periods range between 3 and 10 years. The majority of comets which have been observed are shown by observation to be periodic; the period is usually very long, being sometimes measured by centuries, but generally by thousands of years. It is conceivable that a comet might revolve in a hyperbolic orbit. Although there are several of these bodies observations on which indicate such an orbit, the deviation from the parabolic form has not in any case been so well marked as to be fully established. Circumstances lead to the classification of newly appearing comets as expected and unexpected. An expected comet is a periodic one of which the return is looked for at a determinate time and in a certain region of the heavens. When this is not the case the comet is an unexpected one.

Physical Constitution of Comets.—The subject of the physical constitution of these bodies is one as to the details of which much uncertainty still exists. The considerations on which conclusions in this field rest are very various, and can best be set forth by beginning with what we may consider to be the best established facts.

We must regard it as well established that comets are not, like planets and satellites, permanent in mass, but are continuously losing minute portions of the matter which belongs to them, through a progressive dissipation—at least when they are in the neighbourhood of the sun. When near perihelion the matter of a comet is seen to be undergoing a process in the nature of evaporation, successive envelopes of vapour rising from the nucleus to form the coma, and then gradually repelled from the sun to form the tail. If this process went on indefinitely every comet would, in the course of ages, be entirely dissipated. This result has actually happened in the case of some known comets, the best established example of which is that of Biela, in which the process of disintegration was clearly followed. As the amount of matter lost by a comet at any one return cannot be estimated, and may be very small, it is impossible to set any limit to the period during which its life may continue. It is still an unsettled question whether, in every case, the evaporation will ultimately cease, leaving a residuum as permanent as any other mass of matter.

The next question in logical order is one of great difficulty. It is whether the nucleus of a comet is an opaque solid body, a cluster of such bodies, or a mass of particles of extreme tenuity. Some light is thrown on this and other questions by the spectroscope. This instrument shows in the spectrum of nearly every comet three bright bands, recognized as those of hydrocarbons. The obvious conclusion is that the light forming these bands is not reflected sunlight, but light radiated by the gaseous hydrocarbons. Since a gas at so great a distance from the sun cannot be heated to incandescence, the question arises how incandescence is excited. The generalizations of recent years growing out of the phenomena of radioactivity make it highly probable that the source is to be found in some form of electrical excitation, produced by electrons or other corpuscles thrown out by the sun. The resemblance of the cometary spectrum to the spectrum of hydrocarbons in the Geissler tube lends great plausibility to this view. It is remarkable that the great comet of 1882 also showed the bright lines of sodium with such intensity that they were observed in daylight by R. Copeland and W. O. Lohse. In addition to these gaseous spectra, all but the fainter comets show a continuous spectrum, crossed by the Fraunhofer lines, which is doubtless due to reflected sunlight. It happens that, since the spectroscope has been perfected, no comet of great brilliancy has been favourably situated for observation. Until the opportunity is offered, the conclusions to be derived from spectroscopic observation cannot be further extended.

In the telescope the nucleus of a bright comet appears as an opaque mass, one or more seconds in diameter, the absolute dimensions comparing with those of the satellites of the planets, sometimes, indeed, equal to our moon. But the actual results of micrometric measures are found to differ very widely. In the case of Donati’s comet of 1858 the nucleus seemed to grow smaller as perihelion was approached. This is evidently due to the fact that the coma immediately around the nucleus was so bright as apparently to form a part of it at considerable distances from the sun. G. P. Bond estimated the diameter of the actual nucleus at 500 m. That the nucleus is a body of appreciable mass seems to be made probable by the fact that, except for the central attraction of such a body, a comet would speedily be dissipated by the different attractions of the sun on different parts of the mass, which would result in each particle pursuing an orbit of its own. It follows that there must be a mass sufficient to hold the parts of the comet, if not absolutely together, at least in each other’s immediate neighbourhood. How great a central mass may be required for this is a subject not yet investigated. It might be supposed that the amount of matter must be sufficient to make the nucleus quite opaque. But two considerations based on observations militate against this view. One is that an opaque body, reflecting much sunlight, would show a brighter continuous spectrum than has yet been found in any comet. Another and yet more remarkable observation is on record which goes far to prove not only the tenuity, but the transparency of a cometary nucleus. The great comet of 1882 made a transit over the sun on the 17th of September, an occurrence unique in the history of astronomy. But the fact of the transit escaped attention except at the observatory of the Cape of Good Hope. Here the comet was watched by W. H. Finlay and by W. L. Elkin as it approached the sun, and was kept in sight until it came almost or quite in contact with the sun’s disk, when it disappeared. It should, if opaque, have appeared a few minutes later, projected on the sun’s disk; but not a trace of it could be seen. The sun was approaching Table Mountain at the critical moment, and its limb was undulating badly, making the detection of a minute point difficult. The possibility of a very small opaque nucleus is therefore still left open; yet the remarkable conclusion still holds, that, immediately around a possible central nucleus, the matter of the head of the comet was so rare as not to intercept