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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/665

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655
CHAPTERS ON THE STARS.

as great. A parallax of 0"20 implies a distance of more than a million times that of our unit of measure.

The first conclusive result as to the extreme minuteness of the parallax of the brighter stars was reached by Struve, at Dorpat, about 1830. In the high latitude of Dorpat the right ascension of a star can be determined with great precision, not only at the moment of its transit over the meridian, but also at transit over the meridian below the pole, which occurs twelve hours later. He, therefore, selected a large group of stars which could be observed twice daily in this way at certain times of the year, and made continuous observations on them through the year. It was not possible, by this method, to certainly detect the parallax of any one star. What was aimed at was to determine the limit of the average parallax of all the stars thus observed. The conclusion reached was that this limit could not exceed one-tenth of a second and that the average distance of the group could not, therefore, be much less than two million times the distance of the sun; if, perchance, some stars were nearer than this, others were more distant.

By a singular coincidence, success in detecting stellar parallax was reached by three independent investigators almost at the same time, observing three different stars.

To Bessel is commonly assigned the credit of having first actually determined the parallax of a star with such certainty as to place the result beyond question. The star having the most rapid proper motion on the celestial sphere, so far as known to Bessel, was 61 Cygni, which is, however, only of the fifth magnitude. This rapid motion indicated that it was probably among the stars nearest to us, much nearer, in fact, than the faint stars by which it is surrounded.

After several futile attempts, he undertook a series of measurements with a heliometer, the best in his power to make, in August, 1837, and continued them until October, 1838. The object was to determine, night after night, the position of 61 Cygni, relative to certain small stars in its neighborhood. Then he and hisassistant, Sluter, made a second series, which was continued until 1840. All these observations showed conclusively that the star had a parallax of about 0".35.

While Bessel was making these observations, Struve, at Dorpat, made a similar attempt upon Alpha Lyræ. This star, in the high northern latitude of Dorpat, could be accurately observed throughout almost the entire year. It is one of the brightest stars near the Pole and has a sensible proper motion. There was, therefore, reason to believe it among the nearest of the stars. The observations of Struve extended from 1835 to August, 1838, and were, therefore, almost simultaneous with the observations made by Bessel on 61 Cygni. He concluded that the parallax of Alpha Lyræ was about one-fourth of a second. Subse-