would be constantly increased, and would result in the comet describing relative to the sun a markedly hyperbolic orbit, deviating too widely from a parabola to leave any doubt, even in the most extreme cases. Moreover, a large majority of comets would then have their aphelia in the direction of the sun’s motion, and therefore their perihelia in the opposite direction. Neither of these results corresponds to the fact. The conclusion is that if we regard a comet as a body not belonging to the solar system, it is at least a body which before its approach to the sun had the same motion through the stellar spaces that the sun has. As this unity of motion must have been maintained from the beginning, we may regard comets as belonging to the solar system in the sense of not being visitors from distant regions of space.
The acceptance of this seemingly inevitable conclusion leads to another: that no comet yet known moves in a really hyperbolic orbit, but that the limit of eccentricity must be regarded as 1, or that of the parabola. It is true that seeming evidence of hyperbolic eccentricity is sometimes afforded by observations and regarded by some astronomers as sufficient. The objections to the reality of the hyperbolic orbit are two: (1) A comet moving in a decidedly hyperbolic orbit must have come from so great a distance within a finite time, say a few millions of years, as to have no relation to the sun, and must after its approach to the sun return into space, never again to visit our system. In this case the motion of the sun through space renders it almost infinitely improbable that the orbit would have been so nearly a parabola as all such orbits are actually found to be. (2) The apparent deviation from a very elongated ellipse has never been in any case greater than might have been the result of errors of observation on bodies of this class.
This being granted, a luminous view of the causes which lead to the observed orbits of comets is readily gained by imagining these bodies to be formed of nebulous masses, which originally accompanied the sun in its journey through space, but at distances, in most cases, vastly greater than that of the farthest planet. Such a mass, when drawn towards the sun, would move round it in a nearly parabolic orbit, similar to the actual orbits of the great majority of comets. The period might be measured by thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years, according to the distances of the comet in the beginning; but instead of bodies extraneous to the system, we should have bodies properly belonging to the system and making revolutions around the sun.
Were it not for the effect of planetary attraction long periods like these would be the general rule, though not necessarily universal. But at every return to perihelion the motion of a comet will be to some extent either accelerated or retarded by the action of Jupiter or any other planet in the neighbourhood of which it may pass. Commonly the action will be so slight as to have little influence on the orbit and the time of revolution. But should the comet chance to pass the orbit of Jupiter just in front of the planet, its motion would be retarded and the orbit would be changed into one of shorter period. Should it pass behind the planet, its motion would be accelerated and its period lengthened. In such cases the orbit might be changed to a hyperbola, and then the comet would never return. It follows that there is a tendency towards a gradual but constant diminution in the total number of comets. If we call Δe the amount by which the eccentricity of a cometary orbit is less than unity, Δe will be an extremely minute fraction in the case of the original orbits. If we call ± δ the change which the eccentricity 1 − Δe undergoes by the action of the planets during the passage of the comet through our system, it will leave the system with the eccentricity 1 − Δe ± δ. The possibilities are even whether δ shall be positive or negative. If negative, the eccentricity will be diminished and the period shortened. If positive, and greater than Δe, the eccentricity 1 − Δe + δ will be greater than 1, and then the comet will be thrown into a hyperbolic orbit and become for ever a wanderer through the stellar spaces.
The nearer a comet passes to a planet, especially to Jupiter, the greatest planet, the greater δ may be. If δ is a considerable negative fraction, the eccentricity will be so reduced that the comet will after the approach be one of short period. It follows that, however long the period of a comet may be, there is a possibility of its becoming one of short period if it approaches Jupiter. There have been several cases of this during the past two centuries, the most recent being that of Brooks’s comet, 1889, V. Soon after its discovery this body was found to have a period of only about seven years. The question why it had not been observed at previous returns was settled after the orbit had been determined by computing its motion in the past. It was thus found that in October 1886 the comet had passed in the immediate neighbourhood of Jupiter, the action of which had been such as to change its orbit from one of long period to the short observed period. A similar case was that of Lexel’s comet, seen in 1770. Originally moving in an unknown orbit, it encountered the planet Jupiter, made two revolutions round the sun, in the second of which it was observed, then again encountered the planet, to be thrown out of its orbit into one which did not admit of determination. The comet was never again found.
A general conclusion which seems to follow from these conditions, and is justified by observations, so far as the latter go, is that comets are not to be regarded as permanent bodies like the planets, but that the conglomerations of matter which compose them are undergoing a process of gradual dissipation in space. This process is especially rapid in the case of the fainter periodic comets. It was first strikingly brought out in the case of Biela’s comet. This object was discovered in 1772, was observed to be periodic after several revolutions had been made, and was observed with a fair degree of regularity at different returns until 1852. At the previous apparition it was found to have separated into two masses, and in 1852 these masses were so widely separated that they might be considered as forming two comets. Notwithstanding careful search at times and places when the comet was due, no trace of it has since been seen. An examination of the table of periodic comets given at the end of this article will show that the same thing is probably true of several other comets, especially Brorsen’s and Tempel’s, which have each made several revolutions since last observed, and have been sought for in vain.
In view of the seemingly inevitable dissipation of comets in the course of ages, and of the actually observed changes of their orbits by the attraction of Jupiter, the question arises whether the orbits of all comets of short period may not have been determined by the attraction of the planets, especially of Jupiter. In this case the orbit would, for a period of several centuries, have continued to nearly intersect that of the planet. We find, as a matter of fact, that several periodic comets either pass near Jupiter or have their aphelia in the neighbourhood of the orbit of Jupiter. The approach, however, is not sufficiently close to have led to the change unless in former times the proximity of the orbits was much greater than it is now. As the orbits of all the bodies of the solar system are subject to a slow secular change of their form and position, this may only show that it must have been thousands of years since the comet became one of short period. The two cases of most difficulty are those of Halley’s and Encke’s comets. The orbit of the former is so elongated and so inclined to the general plane of the planetary orbits that its secular variation must be very slow indeed. But it does not pass near the orbit of any planet except Venus; and even here the proximity is far from being sufficient to have produced an appreciable change in the period. The orbit of Encke’s comet is entirely within the orbit of Jupiter, and it also cannot have passed near enough to a planet for thousands of years to have had its orbit changed by the action in question. It therefore seems difficult to regard these two comets as other than permanent members of the solar system.
Special Periodic Comets.—One of the most remarkable periodic comets with which we are acquainted is that known to astronomers as Halley’s. Having perceived that the elements of the comet of 1682 were nearly the same as those of two comets which had respectively appeared in 1531 and 1607, Edmund