Off on a Comet
By Jules Verne (1877)
A month passed away. Gallia continued its course bearing its little population onward, so far removed from the ordinary influence of human passions that it might almost be said that its sole ostensible vice was represented by the greed and avarice of the miserable Isac.
After all, they were but making a voyage—a strange, yet a transient, excursion through solar regions hitherto untraversed; but if the professor's calculations were correct—and why should they be doubted?—their little vessel was destined, after a two years' absence, once more to return to port. The landing, indeed, might be a matter of difficulty; but with the good prospect before them of once again standing on terrestrial shores, they had nothing to do at present except to make themselves as comfortable as they could in their present quarters.
Thus confident in their anticipations, neither the captain, the count, nor the lieutenant felt under any serious obligation to make any extensive provisions for the future; they saw no necessity for expending the strength of the people, during the short summer that would intervene upon the long severity of winter, in the cultivation or the preservation of their agricultural resources. Nevertheless, they often found themselves talking over the measures they would have been driven to adopt, if they had found themselves permanently attached to their present home.
Even after the turning-point in their career, thee knew that at least nine months would have to elapse before the sea would be open to navigation; but at the very first arrival of summer they would be bound to arrange for the "Dobryna" and the "Hansa" to re-transport themselves and all their animals to the shores of Gourbi Island, where they would have to commence their agricultural labors to secure the crops that must form their winter store. During four months or thereabouts, they would lead the lives of farmers and of sportsmen; but no sooner would their hay-making and their corn harvest have been accomplished, than they would be compelled again, like a swarm of bees, to retire to their semi-troglodyte existence in the cells of Nina-Hive.
Now and then the captain and his friends found themselves speculating whether, in the event of their having to spend another winter upon Gallia, some means could not be devised by which the dreariness of a second residence in the recesses of the volcano might be escaped. Would not another exploring expedition possibly result in the discovery of a vein of coal or other combustible matter, which could be turned to account in warming some erection which they might hope to put up? A prolonged existence in their underground quarters was felt to be monotonous and depressing, and although it might be all very well for a man like Professor Rosette, absorbed in astronomical studies it was ill-suited to the temperaments of any of themselves for any longer period than was absolutely indispensable.
One contingency there was, almost too terrible to be taken into account. Was it not to be expected that the time might come when the internal fires of Gallia would lose their activity, and the stream of lava would consequently cease to flow? Why should Gallia be exempt from the destiny that seemed to await every other heavenly body? Why should it not roll onwards, like the moon, a dark cold mass in space?
In the event of such a cessation of the volcanic eruption, whilst the comet was still at so great a distance from the sun, they would indeed be at a loss to find a substitute for what alone had served to render life endurable at a temperature of 60° below zero. Happily, however, there was at present no symptom of the subsidence of the lava's stream; the volcano continued its regular and unchanged discharge, and Servadac, ever sanguine, declared that it was useless to give themselves any anxiety upon the matter.
On the 15th of December, Gallia was 276,000,000 leagues from the sun, and, as it was approximating to the extremity of its axis major, would travel only some 11,000,000 or 12,000,000 leagues during the month. Another world was now becoming a conspicuous object in the heavens, and Palmyrin Rosette, after rejoicing in an approach nearer to Jupiter than any other mortal man had ever attained, was now to be privileged to enjoy a similar opportunity of contemplating the planet Saturn. Not that the circumstances were altogether so favorable. Scarcely 31,000,000 miles had separated Gallia from Jupiter; the minimum distance of Saturn would not be less than 415,000,000 miles; but even this distance, although too great to affect the comet's progress more than had been duly reckoned on, was considerably shorter than what had ever separated Saturn from the earth.
To get any information about the planet from Rosette appeared quite impossible. Although equally by night and by day he never seemed to quit his telescope, he did not evince the slightest inclination to impart the result of his observations. It was only from the few astronomical works that happened to be included in the "Dobryna's" library that any details could be gathered, but these were sufficient to give a large amount of interesting information.
Ben-Zouf, when he was made aware that the earth would be invisible to the naked eye from the surface of Saturn, declared that he then for his part, did not care to learn any more about such a planet; to him it was in dispensable that the earth should remain in sight, and it was his great consolation that hitherto his native sphere had never vanished from his gaze.
At this date Saturn was revolving at a distance of 420,000,000 miles from Gallia, and consequently 874,440,000 miles from the sun, receiving only a hundredth part of the light and heat which that luminary bestows upon the earth. On consulting their books of reference, the colonists found that Saturn completes his revolution round the sun in a period of 29 years and 167 days, traveling at the rate of more than 21,000 miles an hour along an orbit measuring 5,490 millions of miles in length. His circumference is about 220,000 miles; his superficies, 144,000 millions of square miles; his volume 143,846 millions of cubic miles. Saturn is 735 times larger than the earth, consequently he is smaller than Jupiter; in mass he is only 90 times greater than the earth, which gives him a density less than that of water. He revolves on his axis in 10 hours 29 minutes, causing his own year to consist of 86,630 days; and his seasons, on account of the great inclination of his axis to the plane of his orbit, are each of the length of seven terrestrial years.
Although the light received from the sun is comparatively feeble, the nights upon Saturn must be splendid. Eight satellites—Mimas, Euceladus, Tethys. Dione, Rhea, Titan, Hyperion, and Japetus—accompany the planet; Mimas, the nearest to its primary, rotating on its axis in 22 1-2 hours, and revolving at a distance of only 120,800 miles, whilst Japetus, the most remote, occupies 79 days in its rotation, and revolves at a distance of 2,314,000 miles.
Another most important contribution to the magnificence of the nights upon Saturn is the triple ring with which, as a brilliant setting, the planet is encompassed. To an observer at the equator, this ring, which has been estimated by Sir William Herschel as scarcely 100 miles in thickness, must have the appearance of a narrow band of light passing through the zenith 12,000 miles above his head. As the observer, however, increases his latitude either north or south, the band will gradually widen out into three detached and concentric rings, of which the innermost, dark though transparent, is 9,625 miles in breadth; the intermediate one, which is brighter than the planet itself, being 17,605 miles broad; and the outer, of a dusky hue, being 8,660 mile broad.
Such, they read, is the general outline of this strange appendage, which revolves in its own plane in 10 hours 32 minutes. Of what matter it is composed, and how it resists disintegration, is still an unsettled question; but it might almost seem that the Designer of the universe, in permitting its existence, had been willing to impart to His intelligent creatures the manner in which celestial bodies are evolved, and that this remarkable ring-system is a remnant of the nebula from which Saturn was himself developed, and which, from some unknown cause, has become solidified. If at any time it should disperse, it would either fall into fragments upon the surface of Saturn, or the fragments, mutually coalescing would form additional satellites to circle round the planet in its path.
To any observer stationed on the planet, between the extremes of lat. 45° on either side of the equator, these wonderful rings would present various strange phenomena. Sometimes they would appear as an illuminated arch, with the shadow of Saturn passing over it like the hour-hand over a dial: at other times they would be like a semi-aureole of light. Very often, too, for periods of several years, daily eclipses of the sun must occur through the interposition of this triple ring.
Truly, with the constant rising and setting of the satellites, some with bright discs at their full, others like silver crescents, in quadrature, as well as by the encircling rings, the aspect of the heavens from the surface of Saturn must be as impressive as it is gorgeous.
Unable, indeed, the Gallians were to realize all the marvels of this strange world. After all, they were practically a thousand times further off than the great astronomers have been able to approach by means of their giant telescopes. But they did not complain; their little comet, they knew was far safer where it was; far better out of the reach of an attraction which, by affecting their path, might have annihilated their best hopes.
While thus they failed to attain to any great personal acquaintance with the glories of Saturn, still less did they penetrate into any of the mysteries of the more distant world of Uranus, although that planet, which from the earth appears only as a star of the sixth magnitude, did become visible to their naked eye. Yet as to the satellites which accompany him on his revolution of 84 years, at a distance of 1,753,851,000 miles from the sun, it must be owned that not one of them was ever to be discerned.
With regard to Neptune, the most distant planet of our system (until an Adams or Le Verrier of the future shall discover another still more remote), he was beyond the range of vision. Possibly he came within the focus of the professor's telescope, but if so, the professor admitted no one to the honor of his confidence. The general community, to inform themselves of any particulars as to the planet's elements, had once again to fall back upon their books. There they read that Neptune's mean distance from the sun is 2,746,271,000 miles: that the period of his revolution is 165 years; that, a spheroid 150 times greater than the earth, he travels along his gigantic orbit at the rate of 12,000 miles an hour; and that he is accompanied by one satellite, which performs its subsidiary orbit at a distance of about 20,000 miles.
The distance of 2,000,000,000 of miles at which Neptune revolves, represents, according to our present knowledge, the extreme limits of the solar system; yet, enormous as that number may sound, it is quite insignificant when compared with the number which represents the radius of the sidereal group to which our sun is attached.
The sun, in fact, appears to form part of the expansive nebula known as the Milky Way, in which he occupies the modest place of a star of about the fourth magnitude. Had Gallia been projected beyond the limits of the sun's attraction, it is within the province of imagination to conjecture that she would have taken for her new centre the nearest of the fixed stars. This star is Alpha in the constellation Centaur; its distance from the sun is more than 16 millions of millions of miles, a number the prodigiousness of which may be realized to a certain degree by the statement that light, which travels at the rate of 186,000 miles a second, would occupy no less than three years and a half in traversing the interval between the star and our sun.
The distances of several of the brightest of the fixed stars have been estimated. Amongst others Vega in the constellation Lyra is 100 millions of millions of miles away; Sirius in Canis Major, 123 millions of millions; the Pole-star 282 millions of millions; and Capella, 340 millions of millions of miles, a figure represented by no less than fifteen digits.
The hard numerical statement of these enormous figures, however, fails altogether in any adequate way to convey a due impression of the magnitude of these distances. Astronomers, in their ingenuity have endeavored to use some other basis, and have found the "velocity of light" to be convenient her their purpose. They have made their representations, something in this way:
"Suppose," they say, "an observer endowed with an infinite length of vision: suppose him stationed on the surface of Capella: looking thence towards the earth he would be a spectator of events that had happened seventy years previously: transport him to a star ten times distant, and he will be reviewing the terrestrial sphere of 720 years back: carry him way further still, to a star so remote that it requires something less than nineteen centuries for light to reach it, and he would be a witness of the birth and death of Christ: convey him further again, and he shall be looking upon the dread desolation of the Deluge: take him away further yet (for space is infinite), and he shall be a spectator of the Creation of the spheres. History is thus stereotyped in space; nothing once accomplished can ever be effaced."
Who can altogether be astonished that Palmyrin Rosette, with his burning thirst for astronomical research, should have been conscious of a longing for yet wider travel through the sidereal universe? With his comet now under the influence of one star, now of another, what various systems might he not have explored! what undreamt-of marvels might not have revealed themselves before his gaze! The stars, fixed and immovable in name, are all of them in motion, and Gallia might have followed them in their untracked way.
This motion of the fixed stars is really very rapid. Arcturus is travelling at the rate of at least fifty-four miles a second; our sun is approaching Hercules at the rate of 240 miles a minute; and yet so great is the distance that observers on the earth have hitherto been unable to discern any appreciable difference.
Still, eventually, because the stars are thus moving at unequal rates of velocity, there must ensue a change in their relative positions: and astronomers have produced diagrams representing the appearance they will present some 50,000 years hence. In these diagrams the irregular quadrilateral of Ursa Major takes the form of a long cross, and the pentagon of Orion has resolved itself into a quadrilateral.
But even if Gallia had been transported to other systems, it would not have been competent to Palmyrin Rosette to view these "secular inequalities" of the spheres; the contemplation, however, of other marvels, exceeding what the solar system has to offer, would more than sufficiently have ravished his view. He would have seen for himself that other planetary groups are not always governed by a single sun, but that occasionally two, three, four, or even six suns will revolve about each other with reciprocal influence. He would have found, too in these compound systems, suns of various hue—red, yellow, green, orange, purple and white—lighting up their planets with rays of glorious coloring; one sun perhaps setting in clearest green, another rising in resplendent crimson, or in dazzling yellow; at times two suns together mingling the tints of their varied beams; and perpetually, day after day, the whole horizon decked with all the colors of the rainbow.
But Gallia had a narrow destiny. She was not to be allowed to wander away into the range of attraction of another centre: nor to mingle with the star clusters, some of which have been entirely, others partially resolved; nor was she to lose herself amongst the 5,000 nebulæ which have resisted hitherto the grasp of the most powerful reflectors. No; Gallia was neither to pass beyond the limits of the solar system, nor to travel out of sight of the terrestrial sphere. Her orbit was circumscribed to little over 1,500 millions of miles; and, in comparison with the infinite space beyond, this was a mere nothing.