Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/February 1874/The Chromosphere and Solar Prominences

Popular Science Monthly Volume 4 February 1874  (1874) 
The Chromosphere and Solar Prominences by Charles Augustus Young








WHAT we see of the sun under ordinary circumstances is but a fraction of his total bulk. While by far the greater portion of the solar mass is included within the photosphere, the blazing cloud-layer which seems to form the sun's true surface, and is the principal source of his light and heat, yet the larger portion of his volume lies without, and constitutes an atmosphere whose diameter is at least double, and its bulk therefore sevenfold that of the central globe.

Atmosphere, however, is hardly the proper term; for this outer envelope, though gaseous in the main, is not spherical, but has an outline exceedingly irregular and variable. It seems to be made up not of overlying strata of different density, but rather of flames, beams, and streamers, as transient and unstable as those of our own aurora borealis. It is divided into two portions, separated by a boundary as definite, though not so regular, as that which parts them both from the photosphere. The outer and far more extensive portion, which in texture and rarity seems to resemble the tails of comets, and may almost, without exaggeration, be likened to "the stuff that dreams are made of," is known as the "coronal atmosphere," since to it is chiefly due the "corona" or glory which surrounds the darkened sun during an eclipse, and constitutes the most impressive feature of the occasion.

At its base, and in contact with the photosphere, is what resembles a sheet of scarlet fire. The appearance, which probably indicates a fact, is as if countless jets of heated gas were issuing through vents and spiracles over the whole surface, thus clothing it with flame which heaves and tosses like the blaze of a conflagration.

This is the "chromosphere" (or chromatosphere, if one is fastidious as to the proper formation of a Greek derivative), a name first proposed by Frankland and Lockyer in 1869, and intended to signify "color-sphere," in allusion to the vivid redness of the stratum caused by the predominance of hydrogen in these flames and clouds.

Here and there masses of this hydrogen mixed with other substances rise to a great height, ascending far above the general level into the coronal regions, where they float like clouds, or are torn to pieces by contending currents. These cloud-masses are known as solar "prominences," or "protuberances," a non-committal sort of appellation applied in 1842, when they first attracted any considerable attention, and while it was a warmly-disputed question whether they were solar, lunar, phenomena of our own atmosphere, or even mere optical illusions. It is unfortunate that no more appropriate and graphic name has yet been found for objects of such wonderful beauty and interest.

Until recently, the solar atmosphere could be seen only when the sun itself was hidden by the moon, a few minutes in a century. Now, however, the spectroscope has brought the chromosphere and the prominences within the range of daily observation, so that they can be studied with nearly the same facility as the spots and faculae, and a fresh field of great interest and importance is thus opened to science. But the corona as yet defies the new method, and can be seen only during the fleeting moments of a solar eclipse.

It seems hardly possible that the ancients should have failed to notice, even with the naked eye, in some one of the many eclipses on record, the presence of blazing star-like objects around the edge of the moon, but we find no mention of any thing of the kind, although the corona is described as we see it now. On this ground some have surmised that the sun has really undergone a change in modern times, and that the chromosphere and prominences are a new development in the solar history. But such mere negative evidence is altogether insufficient as a foundation for so important a conclusion.

The earliest recorded observation of the prominences is probably that of Vassenius, a Swedish astronomer, who, during the total eclipse of 1733, noticed three or four small pinkish clouds, entirely detached from the limb of the moon, and, as he supposed, floating in the lunar atmosphere. At that time this was the most natural interpretation of the appearance, since the fact that the moon is without atmosphere was not yet ascertained.

The Spanish admiral, Don Ulloa, in his account of the eclipse of 1778, describes a point of red light which made its appearance on the western limb of the moon about a minute and a quarter before the emergence of the sun. At first small and faint, it grew brighter and brighter until extinguished by the returning sunlight. He supposed that the phenomenon was caused by a hole or fissure in the body of the moon; but, with our present knowledge there can be no doubt that it was simply a prominence gradually uncovered by her motion.

The chromosphere seems to have been seen even earlier than the prominences: thus Captain Stannyan, in a report on the eclipse of 1706, observed by him at Berne, noticed that the emersion of the sun was preceded by a blood-red streak of light, visible for six or seven seconds upon the western limb. Halley and Louville saw the same thing in 1715. Halley says that two or three seconds before the emersion a long and very narrow streak of a dusky but strong red light seemed to color the dark edge of the moon on the western edge where the sun was about to reappear. Louville's account agrees substantially, and he further describes the precautions he used to satisfy himself that the phenomenon was no mere optical illusion, nor due to any imperfection of his telescope.

In eclipses that followed that of 1733, the chromosphere and prominences seem to have attracted but little attention, even if they were observed at all. Something of the sort appears to have been noticed by Ferrers in 1806, but the main interest of his observation lay in a different direction.

In July, 1842, a great eclipse occurred, and the shadow of the moon described a wide belt running across Southern France, Northern Italy, and a portion of Austria. The eclipse was carefully observed by many of the most noted astronomers of the world, and so completely had previous observations of the kind been forgotten, that the prominences, which appeared then with great brilliance, were regarded with extreme surprise, and became objects of warm discussion, not only as to their cause and location, but even as to their very existence. Some thought them mountains upon the sun, some that they were solar flames, and others, clouds floating in the sun's atmosphere. Others referred them to the moon, and yet others claimed that they were mere optical illusions. At the eclipse of 1851 (in Sweden and Norway), similar observations were repeated, and, as a result of the discussions and comparison of observations which followed, astronomers generally became satisfied that the prominences are real phenomena of the solar atmosphere, in many respects analogous to our terrestrial clouds; and several came more or less confidently to the conclusion, now known to be true (see Grant's "History of Physical Astronomy"), that the sun is entirely surrounded with a continuous stratum of the same substance. Many, however, remained unconvinced: Faye, for instance, still asserted them to be mere optical illusions, or mirages.

In the eclipse of 1860, photography was for the first time employed on such an occasion with any thing like success. The results of Secchi and De La Rue removed all remaining doubts as to the real existence and solar character of the objects in question, by exhibiting them upon their plates gradually covered on one side and uncovered on the other side of the sun by the outward progress of the moon.

Secchi thus sums up his conclusions, which have been justified in almost all their details by later observations; they require few and slight corrections:

1. The prominences are not mere optical illusions; they are real phenomena pertaining to the sun....

2. The prominences are collections of luminous matter of great brilliance, and possessing remarkable photographic activity. This activity is so great that many of them, which are visible in our photographs, could not be seen directly even with good instruments.

3. Some protuberances float entirely free in the solar atmosphere like clouds. If they are variable in form, their changes are so gradual as to be insensible in the space of ten minutes. (Generally, but by no means always, true.)

4. Besides the isolated and conspicuous protuberances there is also a layer of the same luminous substance which surrounds the whole sun, and out of which the protuberances rise above the general level of the solar surface....

5. The number of the protuberances is indefinitely great. In direct observation through the telescope the sun appeared surrounded with flames too numerous to count....

6. The height of the protuberances is very great, especially when we take account of the portion hidden by the moon. One of them had a height of at least three minutes, which indicates a real altitude of more than ten times the earth's diameter...

But their nature still remained a mystery; and no one could well be blamed for thinking it must always remain so to some degree. At that time it could hardly be hoped that we should ever be able to ascertain their chemical constitution, and measure the velocities of their motions. And yet this has been done. Before the great Indian eclipse of August 18, 1868, the spectroscope had been invented (it was, indeed, already in its infancy in 1860), and applied to astronomical research with the most astonishing and important results.

Every one is more or less familiar with the story of this eclipse. Herschel, Tennant, Pogson, Rayet, and Janssen, all made substantially the same report. They found the spectrum of the prominences observed to consist of bright lines, and conspicuous among them were the lines of hydrogen. There were some serious discrepancies, indeed, among their observations, not only as to the number of the bright lines seen, which is not to be wondered at, but as to their position. Thus, Rayet (who saw more lines than any other) identified the red line observed with B instead of C; and all the observers mistook the yellow line they saw for that of sodium.

Still, their observations, taken together, completely demonstrated the fact that the prominences are enormous masses of highly-heated gaseous matter, and that hydrogen is a main constituent.

Janssen went further. The lines he saw during the eclipse were so brilliant that he felt sure he could see them again in the full sunlight. He was prevented by clouds from trying the experiment the same afternoon, after the close of the eclipse; but the next morning the sun rose unobscured, and, as soon as he had completed the necessary adjustments, and directed his instrument to the portion of the sun's limb where the day before the most brilliant prominence appeared, the same lines came out again, clear and bright; and now, of course, there was no difficulty in determining at leisure, and with almost absolute accuracy, their position in the spectrum. He immediately confirmed his first conclusion, that hydrogen is the most conspicuous component of the prominences, but found that the yellow line must be referred to some different element than sodium, being somewhat more refrangible then the D lines.

He found also that, by slightly moving his telescope and causing the image of the sun's limb to take different positions with reference to the slit of his spectroscope, he could even trace out the form and measure the dimensions of the prominences; and he remained at his station for several days, engaged in these novel and exceedingly interesting observations.

Of course, he immediately sent home a report of his eclipse-work, and of his new discovery, but, as his station at Guntoor, in Eastern India, was farther from mail communication with Europe than those upon the western coast of the peninsula, his letter did not reach France until some week or two after the accounts of the other observers; when it did arrive, it came to Paris, in company with a communication from Mr. Lockyer, announcing the same discovery, made independently, and even more creditably, since with Mr. Lockyer it was not suggested by any thing he had seen, but was thought out from fundamental principles.

Nearly two years previously the idea had occurred to him (and, indeed, to others also, though he was the first to publish it), that if the protuberances are gaseous, so as to give a spectrum of bright lines, those lines ought to be visible in a spectroscope of sufficient power, even in broad daylight. The principle is simply this:

Under ordinary circumstances the protuberances are invisible, for the same reason as the stars, in the daytime: they are hidden by the intense light reflected from the particles of our own atmosphere near the sun's place in the sky, and, if we could only sufficiently weaken this aërial illumination, without at the same time weakening their light, the end would be gained. And the spectroscope accomplishes precisely this very thing. Since the air-light is reflected sunshine, it of course presents the same spectrum as sunlight, a continuous band of color crossed by dark lines. Now, this sort of spectrum is greatly weakened by every increase of dispersive power, because the light is spread out into a longer ribbon and made to cover a more extended area. On the other hand, a spectrum of bright lines undergoes no such weakening by an increase in the dispersive power of the spectroscope. The bright lines are only more widely separated—not in the least diffused or shorn of their brightness. If, then, the image of the sun, formed by a telescope, be examined with a spectroscope, one might hope to see at the edge of the disk the bright lines belonging to the spectrum of the prominences, in case they are really gaseous.

Mr. Lockyer and Mr. Huggins both tried the experiment as early as 1867, but without success; partly because their instruments had not sufficient power to bring out the lines conspicuously, but more because they did not know whereabouts in the spectrum to look for them, and were not even sure of their existence. At any rate, as soon as the discovery was announced, Mr. Huggins immediately saw the lines without difficulty, with the same instrument which had failed to show them to him before. It is a fact, too often forgotten, that to perceive a thing known to exist does not require one-half the instrumental power or acuteness of sense as to discover it.

Mr. Lockyer, immediately after his suggestion was published, had set about procuring a suitable instrument, and was assisted by a grant from the treasury of the Royal Society. After a long delay, consequent in part upon the death of the optician who had first undertaken its construction, and partly due to other causes, he received the new spectroscope just as the report of Herschel's and Tennant's observations reached England. Hastily adjusting the instrument, not yet entirely completed, he at once applied it to his telescope, and without difficulty found the lines, and verified their position. He immediately also discovered them to be visible around the whole circumference of the sun, and consequently that the protuberances are mere extensions of a continuous solar envelope, to which, as mentioned above, was given the name of Chromosphere. (He does not seem to have been aware of the earlier and similar conclusions of Arago, Grant, Secchi, and others.) He at once communicated his results to the Royal Society, and also to the French Academy of Sciences, and, by one of the curious coincidences which so frequently occur, his letter and Janssen's were read at the same meeting, and within a few minutes of each other.

The discovery excited the greatest enthusiasm, and in 1872 the French Government struck a gold medal in honor of the two astronomers, bearing their united effigies.

It immediately occurred to several observers, Janssen, Lockyer, Zöllner, and others, that by giving a rapid motion of vibration or rotation to the slit of the spectroscope it would be possible to perceive the whole contour and detail of a protuberance at once, but it seems to have been reserved for Mr. Huggins to be the first to show practically that a still simpler device would answer the same purpose. With a spectroscope of sufficient dispersive power it is only necessary to widen the slit of the instrument by the proper adjusting screw. As the slit is widened, more and more of the protuberance becomes visible, and if not too large the whole can be seen at once: with the widening of the slit, however, the brightness of the background increases, so that the finer details of the object are less clearly seen, and a limit is soon reached beyond which further widening is disadvantageous. The higher the dispersive power of the spectroscope the wider the slit that can be used, and the larger the protuberance that can be examined as a whole.

Fig. 1.

PSM V04 D407 Huggins first observation of a prominence.jpg

Huggins's First Observation of a Prominence in full Sunshine.

Mr. Huggins's first successful observation of the form of a solar protuberance was made on February 13, 1869. Fig. 1, copied from the Proceedings of the Royal Society, presents his delineation of what he saw. As his instrument had only the dispersive power of two prisms, and included in its field of view a large portion of the spectrum at once, he found it necessary to supplement its powers by using a red glass to cut off stray light of other colors, and by inserting a diaphragm at the focus of the small telescope of the spectroscope to limit the field of view to the portion of the spectrum immediately adjoining the C line. With the instruments now in use, these precautions are seldom necessary.

Fig. 2.

PSM V04 D407 Spectroscope with prism train.jpg

Spectroscope, with Train of Prisms.

It may be noticed, in passing, that Mr. Huggins had previously (and has subsequently) made many experiments with different absorbing media, in hopes of finding some substance which, by cutting off all light of other color than that emitted by the prominences, should render them visible in the telescope; thus far, however, without success.

The spectroscopes used by different astronomers for observations of this sort differ greatly in form and power. Fig. 2 represents the one employed at the Shattuck Observatory of Dartmouth College, and most of our American observatories are supplied with instruments similarly arranged. The light passes from the collimator c, through the train of prisms p, near their bases, and, by two reflections in a rectangular prism, r, is transferred to the upper story, so to speak, of the prism-train, and made to return to the telescope t, finally reaching the eye at e. It thus twice traverses a train of six prisms, and the dispersive power of the instrument is twelve times as great as it would be with only one prism. The diameter of the collimator is a little less than an inch, and its length 10 inches. The whole instrument, powerful as it is, only weighs about 14 pounds, and occupies a space of about 15 in. x 6 in. x 5 in. It is also automatic, i. e., the tangent screw m keeps the train of prisms adjusted to their position of minimum deviation by the same movement which brings the different portions of the spectrum to the centre of the field of view.

The spectroscope is attached to the equatorial telescope, to which it belongs, by means of the clamping rings a, a. These slide upon a stout metal rod, firmly fastened to the telescope in such a way that the slit s, of the instrument, can be placed exactly at the focus of the object-glass, where the image of the sun is formed.[1]

The telescope is directed so that the solar image shall fall with that portion of its limb which is to be examined just tangent to the opened slit, as in Fig. 3, which represents the slit-plate of the spectroscope of its actual size, with the image of the sun in position for observation just touching the rectangular opening formed on widening the slit by its adjusting screw.

Fig. 3.

PSM V04 D408 Open slit of the spectroscope.jpg

Opened Slit of the Spectroscope.

If, now, a prominence exists at this part of the sun's limb (as would probably be the case, considering the proximity of the spot shown in Fig. 3), and if the spectroscope itself is so adjusted that the C line falls in the centre of the field of view, then, on looking into the eye-piece, one will see something much like Fig. 4. The red portion of the spectrum will stretch athwart the field of view like a scarlet ribbon, with a darkish band across it, and in that band will appear the prominences, like scarlet clouds; so like our own terrestrial clouds, indeed, in form and texture, that the resemblance is quite startling: one might almost think he was looking out through a partly-opened door upon a sunset sky, except that there is no variety or contrast of color; all the cloudlets are of the same pure scarlet hue. Along the edge of the opening is seen the chromosphere, more brilliant than the clouds which rise from it or float above it, and for the most part made up of minute tongues and filaments.

Fig. 4.

PSM V04 D409 Spectroscopic aspect of a prominence.jpg

Spectroscopic Aspect of a Prominence.

If the spectroscope is adjusted upon the F line, instead of C, then a similar image of the prominences and chromosphere is seen, only blue instead of scarlet; usually, however, this blue image is somewhat less perfect in its details and definition, and is therefore less used for observation. Similar effects are obtained by means of the yellow line near D, and the violet line near G. By setting the spectroscope upon this latter line and attaching a small camera to the eye-piece, it is even possible to photograph a bright protuberance; but the light is so feeble, the image so small, the time of exposure needed so long, and the requisite accuracy of motion in the clock-work which drives the telescope so difficult of attainment, that thus far no pictures of any real value have been obtained in this manner.

Prof. Winlock and Mr. Lockyer have attempted, by using, instead of the ordinary slit, an annular opening, to obtain a view of the whole circumference of the sun at once, and have partially succeeded. Undoubtedly, with a spectroscope of sufficient power, and adjustments delicate enough, the thing can be done; but as yet no very satisfactory results appear to have been reached. We are still obliged to examine the circumference of the sun piecemeal, so to speak, readjusting the instrument at each point, to make the slit tangential to the limb.

The number of protuberances of considerable magnitude (exceeding 10,000 miles in altitude), visible at any one time on the circumference of the sun, is never very great, rarely reaching twenty-five or thirty; perhaps during the past few years it would most commonly lie between ten and twenty. At present, as the number of the spots decreases, the number of the prominences seems also to be diminishing, and within a few months there have been occasions when a careful search revealed only three or four.

Their distribution on the sun's surface is in some respects similar to that of the spots, but with important differences. The spots are confined within 40° of the sun's equator, being most numerous at a solar latitude of about 20° on each hemisphere. Now, the protuberances are most numerous precisely where the spots are most abundant, but they do not disappear at a latitude of 40°; they are found even at the poles, and from the latitude of 60° actually increase in number to a latitude of about 75°.

Fig. 5.

PSM V04 D410 Sunspot and protuberance frequency.jpg

Relative Frequency of Protuberances and Sun-Spots.

The annexed diagram, Fig. 5, represents the relative frequency of the protuberances and spots on the different portions of the solar surface. On the left side is given the result of Carrington's observation of 1,414 spots between 1853 and 1861, and on the right the result of Secchi's observations of 2,767[2] protuberances in 1871. The length of each radial line represents the number of spots or protuberances observed at each particular latitude on a scale of a quarter of an inch to the hundred; for example, Secchi gives 228 protuberances as the number observed during the period of his work between 10° and 20° of south latitude, and the corresponding line drawn at 15° south, on the left-hand side of the figure, is therefore made 228400 or .57 of an inch long. The other lines are laid off in the same way, and thus the irregular curve drawn through their extremities represents to the eye the relative frequency of these phenomena in the different solar latitudes. The dotted line on the right-hand side represents in the same manner and on the same scale the distribution of the larger protuberances, having an altitude of more than 1′, or 27,000 miles.

A mere inspection of the diagram shows at once that, while the prominences may, and in fact often do, have a close connection with the spots, they are entirely independent phenomena.

A careful study of the subject shows that they are much more closely related to the faculæ. In many cases at least, faculæ, when followed to the limb of the sun, have been found to be surrounded by prominences, and there is reason to suppose that the fact is a general one. The spots, on the other hand, when they reach the border of the sun's image, are commonly surrounded by prominences more or less completely, but seldom overlaid by them. Indeed, Respighi asserts (and the most careful observations we have been able to make confirm his statement) that as a general rule the chromosphere is considerably depressed immediately over a spot. Secchi, however, denies this.

The protuberances differ greatly in magnitude. The average depth of the chromosphere is not far from 10“ or 12“, or about 5,000 or 6,000 miles, and it is not, therefore, customary to note as a prominence any cloud with an elevation of less than 15“ or 20“—7,000 to 9,000 miles. Of the 2,767 already quoted, 1,964 attained an altitude of 40“, or 18,000 miles, and it is worthy of notice that the smaller ones are so few, only about one-third of the whole: 751, or nearly one-fourth of the whole, reached a height of over 1′, or 28,000 miles; the precise number which reached greater elevations is not mentioned, but several exceeded 3′, or 84,000 miles. There are numerous instances on record, by different observers, of protuberances exceeding 100,000 miles, and a single instance, observed by the writer, in which the enormous altitude of 7′ 49″, or 211,000 miles, was attained.

In their form and structure the protuberances differ as widely as in their magnitude. Two principal classes are recognized by all observers, the quiescent, cloud-formed, or hydrogenous, and the eruptive or metallic. By Secchi these are each further subdivided into several


Three figures, of the same prominence, seen July 25, 1872.
PSM V04 D412 Series of prominences.jpg

sub-classes or varieties, between which, however, it is not always easy to maintain the distinctions.

The quiescent prominences in form and texture resemble, with almost perfect exactness, our terrestrial clouds, and differ among themselves as much and in the same manner. The familiar cirrus and stratus types are very common, the former especially, while the cumulus and cumulo-stratus are less frequent. The protuberances of this class are often of enormous magnitude, especially in their horizontal extent (but the highest elevations are attained by those of the eruptive order), and are comparatively permanent, remaining often for hours and days without serious change; near the poles they sometimes persist through a whole solar revolution of twenty-seven days. Sometimes they appear to lie upon the limb of the sun like a bank of clouds in the horizon; probably because they are so far from the edge of the disk that only their upper portions are in sight. When seen in their full extent they are ordinarily connected to the underlying chromosphere by slender columns, which are usually smallest at the base, and appear often to be made up of separate filaments closely intertwined, and expanding upward. Sometimes the whole under surface is fringed with down-hanging filaments, which remind one of a summer shower falling from a heavy thunder-cloud. Sometimes they float entirely free from the chromosphere; indeed, as a general rule, the layer clouds are attended by detached cloudlets for the most part horizontal in their arrangement.

The figures give an idea of some of the general appearances of this class of prominences, but their delicate, filmy beauty can be adequately rendered only by a far more elaborate style of engraving.

Their spectrum is usually very simple, consisting of the four lines of hydrogen and the orange D3—hence the appellation hydrogenous. Occasionally the sodium and magnesium lines also appear, and that even near the summit of the clouds; and this phenomenon was so much more frequently observed in the clear atmosphere of Sherman as to suggest that, if the power of our spectroscopes were sufficiently increased, it would cease to be unusual.

The genesis of this sort of prominence is problematical. They have been commonly looked upon as the débris and relics of eruptions, consisting of gases which have been ejected from beneath the solar surface, and then abandoned to the action of the currents of the sun's upper atmosphere. But near the poles of the sun distinctively eruptive prominences never appear, and there is no evidence of aërial currents which would transport to those regions matters ejected nearer the sun's equator. Indeed, the whole appearance of these objects indicates that they originate where we see them. Possibly, although in the polar regions there are no violent eruptions, there yet may be a quiet outpouring of heated hydrogen sufficient to account for their production—an outrush issuing through the smaller pores of the solar surface, which abound near the poles as well as elsewhere.

But Secchi reports an observation (not yet, however, confirmed by other spectroscopists, so far as we know) which, if correct, puts a very different face upon the matter. He has seen isolated cloudlets form and grow spontaneously without any perceptible connection with the chromosphere or other masses of hydrogen, just as in our own atmosphere clouds form from aqueous vapor, already present in the air, but invisible until some local cooling or change of pressure causes its condensation. Granting the correctness of the observation, these prominences are, therefore, formed by some local heating or other luminous excitement of hydrogen already present, and not by any transportation and aggregation of materials from a distance. The


Scale 75,000 miles to the inch.

PSM V04 D414 Quiescent prominences.jpg

precise nature of the action which produces this effect it would not be possible to assign at present; but it is worthy of note that the observations of the eclipse of 1871, by Lockyer and others, rather favor this view, by showing that hydrogen, in a feebly luminous condition, is found all around the sun, and at a very great altitude—far above the ordinary range of prominences.

The eruptive prominences are very different, consisting usually of brilliant spikes or jets, which change their form and brightness very rapidly. For the most part they attain altitudes of not more than 20,000 or 30,000 miles, but occasionally they rise far higher than even the largest of the clouds of the preceding class. Their spectrum is very complicated, especially near their base, and often filled with bright lines, those of sodium, magnesium, barium, iron, and titanium, being especially conspicuous, while calcium, chromium, manganese, and probably sulphur, are by no means rare, and for this reason Secchi calls them metallic prominences.

They usually appear in the immediate neighborhood of a spot, never occurring very near the solar poles. Their form and appearance change with great rapidity, so that the motion can almost be seen with the eye—an interval of fifteen or twenty minutes being often sufficient to transform, quite beyond recognition, a mass of these flames 50,000 miles high, and sometimes embracing the whole period of their complete development or disappearance. Sometimes they consist of pointed rays, diverging in all directions, like hedgehog spines. Sometimes they look like flames; sometimes like sheaves of grain; sometimes like whirling water-spouts, capped with a great cloud; occasionally they present most exactly the appearance of jets of liquid fire, rising and falling in graceful parabolas; frequently they carry on their edges spirals like the volutes of an Ionic column; and continually they detach filaments which rise to a great elevation, gradually expanding and growing fainter as they ascend, until the eye loses them. Our figures present some of the more common and typical forms, and illustrate their rapidity of change, but there is no end to the number of curious and interesting appearances which they exhibit under varying circumstances.

The velocity of the motions often exceeds 100 miles a second, and sometimes, though very rarely, reaches 200 miles. That we have to do with actual motions, and not with mere change of place of a luminous form, is rendered certain by the fact that the lines of the spectrum are often displaced and distorted in a manner to indicate that some of the cloud-masses are moving either toward or from the earth (and, of course, tangential to the solar surface) with similar swiftness.

When we come to inquire what forces impart such a velocity, the subject becomes difficult. If we could admit that the surface of the sun is solid, or even liquid, as Zöllner thinks, then it would be easy to understand the phenomena as eruptions, analogous to those of volcanoes on the earth, though on the solar scale. But it is next to certain that the sun is mainly gaseous, and that its luminous surface or photosphere is a sheet of incandescent clouds, like those of the earth, except that water-droplets are replaced by droplets of the metals; and it is difficult to see how such a shell could exert sufficient confining power upon the imprisoned gases to explain such tremendous velocity in the ejected matter.

Scale, 75,000 miles to the inch

PSM V04 D416 Quiescent prominences.jpg

Possibly the difficulty may be met by taking account of the enormous amount of condensation which must be going on within the photosphere. To supply the heat which the sun throws off (enough to melt each minute a shell of ice nearly forty feet thick over his entire surface) would require the condensation of enough vapor to make a sheet of liquid five feet thick in the same time—supposing, that is, the latent heat of the solar vapors not greater than that of water vapors. This, of course, is uncertain, but, so far as we know, very few if any vapors contain more latent heat than that of water, and we may therefore consider it roughly correct to estimate the continuous production of liquid as measured by the quantity named. Now, on the surface of the earth a rain-storm which deposits two inches in an hour is very uncommon—in such a storm the water falls in sheets. It is easy to see, then, that the quantity of liquid pouring from the solar clouds is so enormous that the drops could not be expected to remain separate, but must almost certainly unite into more or less continuous masses or sheets, between and through which the gases ascending from beneath must make their way. And since the weight of the vapors which ascend must continually equal that of the products of condensation which are falling, it is further evident that the upward currents, rushing through contracted channels, must move with enormous velocity, and therefore, of course, that the pressure and temperature must rapidly increase from the free surface downward. It would seem that thus we might explain how the upper surface of the hydrogen atmosphere is tormented by the up-rush from below, and how gaseous masses, thrown up from beneath, should, in the prominences, present the appearances which have been described. Nor would it be strange if veritable explosions should occur in the quasi pipes or channels through which the vapors rise, when, under the varying circumstances of pressure and temperature, the mingled gases reach their point of combination; explosions which would fairly account for such phenomena as those represented on page 400, when clouds of hydrogen were thrown to an elevation of more than 200,000 miles with a velocity which must have exceeded at first 200 miles per second, and very probably, taking into account the resistance of the solar atmosphere, may, as Mr. Proctor has shown, have exceeded 500; a velocity sufficient to hurl a dense material entirely clear of the power of the sun's attraction, and send it out into space, never to return.

But our limits forbid indulgence in such speculations; nor can we stop to discuss the interesting question concerning the relation between these solar eruptions and magnetic storms upon the earth. It must suffice to say that, while it is not probable that our greater magnetic disturbances are caused directly by solar influence, it is very nearly certain that every violent paroxysm upon the sun is distinctly and immediately responded to by our magnetometers.

Whether these solar storms produce any other effects upon the earth, has not been ascertained. Some are so sanguine as to expect that in the study of these phenomena will be found the key to many puzzling problems of terrestrial meteorology. We cannot say that we share the expectation; but the subject is certainly worthy of careful examination, and it is not possible to doubt that faithful labor in so new and fertile a field will be rewarded, if not with precisely the result anticipated, yet with some rich harvest.

  1. The writer has recently found that a so-called diffraction-grating may take the place of the train of prisms in spectroscopes designed for simply viewing the prominences. With a grating ruled upon speculum metal, having 6,480 lines to the inch (for which he is indebted to the skill and kindness of Mr. Rutherfurd), he is able to observe the forms and motions of these objects nearly as well as with the spectroscope described in the text.
  2. The 2,767 prominences are not all different ones. If any of the prominences observed on one day remained visible the next, they were recorded afresh; and, as a prominence near the pole would be carried but slowly out of sight by the sun's rotation, it is thus easy to see how the number of prominences recorded in the polar regions is so large, notwithstanding the smaller area of each zone of 5° width, as compared with a similar zone near the equator.