The Position of Saturn in the Systemby@robertsball

The Position of Saturn in the System

by Robert S. BallApril 28th, 2023
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At a profound distance in space, which, on an average, is 886,000,000 miles, the planet Saturn performs its mighty revolution around the sun in a period of twenty-nine and a half years. This gigantic orbit formed the boundary to the planetary system, so far as it was known to the ancients. Although Saturn is not so great a body as Jupiter, yet it vastly exceeds the earth in bulk and in mass, and is, indeed, much greater than any one of the planets, Jupiter alone excepted. But while Saturn must yield the palm to Jupiter so far as mere dimensions are concerned, yet it will be generally admitted that even Jupiter, with all the retinue by which he is attended, cannot compete in beauty with the marvellous system of Saturn. To the present writer it has always seemed that Saturn is one of the three most interesting celestial objects visible to observers in northern latitudes. The other two will occupy our attention in future chapters. They are the great nebula in Orion, and the star cluster in Hercules.
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The Story of the Heavens by Robert S. Ball is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. SATURN


The Position of Saturn in the System—Saturn one of the Three most Interesting Objects in the Heavens—Compared with Jupiter—Saturn to the Unaided Eye—Statistics relating to the Planet—Density of Saturn—Lighter than Water—The Researches of Galileo—What he found in Saturn—A Mysterious Object—The Discoveries made by Huyghens half a Century later—How the Existence of the Ring was Demonstrated—Invisibility of the Rings every Fifteen Years—The Rotation of the Planet—The Celebrated Cypher—The Explanation—Drawing of Saturn—The Dark Line—W. Herschel's Researches—Is the Division in the Ring really a Separation?—Possibility of Deciding the Question—The Ring in a Critical Position—Are there other Divisions in the Ring?—The Dusky Ring—Physical Nature of Saturn's Rings—Can they be Solid?—Can they even be Slender Rings?—A Fluid?—True Nature of the Rings—A Multitude of Small Satellites—Analogy of the Rings of Saturn to the Group of Minor Planets—Problems Suggested by Saturn—The Group of Satellites to Saturn—The Discoveries of Additional Satellites—The Orbit of Saturn not the Frontier of our System.

At a profound distance in space, which, on an average, is 886,000,000 miles, the planet Saturn performs its mighty revolution around the sun in a period of twenty-nine and a half years. This gigantic orbit formed the boundary to the planetary system, so far as it was known to the ancients.

Although Saturn is not so great a body as Jupiter, yet it vastly exceeds the earth in bulk and in mass, and is, indeed, much greater than any one of the planets, Jupiter alone excepted. But while Saturn must yield the palm to Jupiter so far as mere dimensions are concerned, yet it will be generally admitted that even Jupiter, with all the retinue by which he is attended, cannot compete in beauty with the marvellous system of Saturn. To the present writer it has always seemed that Saturn is one of the three most interesting celestial objects visible to observers in northern latitudes. The other two will occupy our attention in future chapters. They are the great nebula in Orion, and the star cluster in Hercules.

So far as the globe of Saturn is concerned, we do not meet with any features which give to the planet any exceptional interest. The globe is less than that of Jupiter, and as the latter is also much nearer to us, the apparent size of Saturn is in a twofold way much smaller than that of Jupiter. It should also be noticed that, owing to the greater distance of Saturn from the sun, its intrinsic brilliancy is less than that of Jupiter. There are, no doubt, certain marks and bands often to be seen on Saturn, but they are not nearly so striking nor so characteristic as the ever-variable belts upon Jupiter. The telescopic appearance of the globe of Saturn must also be ranked as greatly inferior in interest to that of Mars. The delicacy of detail which we can see on Mars when favourably placed has no parallel whatever in the dim and distant Saturn. Nor has Saturn, regarded again merely as a globe, anything like the interest of Venus. The great splendour of Venus is altogether out of comparison with that of Saturn, while the brilliant crescent of the evening star is infinitely more pleasing than any telescopic view of the globe of Saturn. Yet even while we admit all this to the fullest extent, it does not invalidate the claim of Saturn to be one of the most supremely beautiful and interesting objects in the heavens. This interest is not due to his globe; it is due to that marvellous system of rings by which Saturn is surrounded—a system wonderful from every point of view, and, so far as our knowledge goes, without a parallel in the wide extent of the universe.

Fig. 64. Saturn. (July 2nd, 1894. 36-in. equatorial.) (Prof. E.E. Barnard.)

[Pg 271]

To the unaided eye Saturn usually appears like a star of the first magnitude. Its light alone would hardly be sufficient to discriminate it from many of the brighter fixed stars. Yet the ancients were acquainted with Saturn, and they knew it as a planet. It was included with the other four great planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter—in the group of wanderers, which were bound to no fixed points of the sky like the stars. On account of the great distance of Saturn, its movements are much slower than those of the other planets known to the ancients. Twenty-nine years and a half are required for this distant object to complete its circuit of the heavens; and, though this movement is slow compared with the incessant changes of Venus, yet it is rapid enough to attract the attention of any careful observer. In a single year Saturn moves through a distance of about twelve degrees, a quantity sufficiently large to be conspicuous to casual observation. Even in a month, or sometimes in a week, the planet traverses an arc of the sky which can be detected by anyone who will take the trouble to mark the place of the planet with regard to the stars in its vicinity. Those who are privileged to use accurate astronomical instruments can readily detect the motion of Saturn in a few hours.

The average distance from the sun to Saturn is about 886 millions of miles. The path of Saturn, as of every other planet, is really an ellipse with the sun in one focus. In the case of Saturn the shape of this ellipse is very appreciably different from a purely circular path. Around this path Saturn moves with an average velocity of 5·96 miles per second.

The mean diameter of the globe of Saturn is about 71,000 miles. Its equatorial diameter is about 75,000 miles, and its polar diameter 67,000 miles—the ratio of these numbers being approximately that of 10 to 9. It is thus obvious that Saturn departs from the truly spherical shape to a very marked extent. The protuberance at its equator must, no doubt, be attributed to the high velocity with which the planet is rotating. The velocity of rotation of Saturn is more than double as fast as that of the earth, though it is not quite so fast as that of Jupiter. Saturn makes one complete rotation in about 10 hrs. 14 min. Mr. Stanley Williams has, however, observed with great care a number of spots which he has discovered, and he finds that some of these spots in about 27° north latitude indicate rotation in a period of 10 hrs. 14 mins. to 15 min., while equatorial spots require no more than 10 hrs. 12 min. to 13 min. There is, however, the peculiarity that spots in the same latitude, but at different parts of the planet, rotate at rates which differ by a minute or more, while the period found by various groups of spots seems to change from year to year.

[Pg 272]

These facts prove that Saturn and the spots do not form a rigid system. The lightness of this planet is such as to be wholly incompatible with the supposition that its globe is constituted of solid materials at all comparable with those of which the crust of our earth is composed. The satellites, which surround Saturn and form a system only less interesting than the renowned rings themselves, enable us to weigh the planet in comparison with the sun, and hence to deduce its actual mass relatively to the earth. The result is not a little remarkable. It appears that the density of the earth is eight times as great as that of Saturn. In fact, the density of the latter is less than that of water itself, so that a mighty globe of water, equal in bulk to Saturn, would actually weigh more. If we could conceive a vast ocean into which a globe equal to Saturn in size and weight were cast, the great globe would not sink like our earth or like any of the other planets; it would float buoyantly at the surface with one-fourth of its bulk out of the water.

We thus learn with high probability that what our telescopes show upon Saturn is not a solid surface, but merely a vast envelope of clouds surrounding a heated interior. It is impossible to resist the suggestion that this planet, like Jupiter, has still retained its heat because its mass is so large. We must, however, allude to a circumstance which perhaps may seem somewhat inconsistent with the view here taken. We have found that Jupiter and Saturn are, both of them, much less dense than the earth. When we compare the two planets together, it appears that Saturn is much less dense than Jupiter. In fact, every cubic mile of Jupiter weighs nearly twice as much as each cubic mile of Saturn. This would seem to point to the conclusion that Saturn is the more heated of the two bodies. Yet, as Jupiter is the larger, it might more reasonably have been expected to be hotter than the other planet. We do not attempt to reconcile this discrepancy; in fact, in our ignorance as to the material constitution of these bodies, it would be idle to discuss the question.

Even if we allow for the lightness of Saturn, as compared[Pg 273] bulk for bulk with the earth, yet the volume of Saturn is so enormous that the planet weighs more than ninety-five times as much as the earth. The adjoining view represents the relative sizes of Saturn and the earth (Fig. 65).

Fig. 65.—Relative Sizes of Saturn and the Earth.

As the unaided eye discloses none of those marvels by which Saturn is surrounded, the interest which attaches to this planet may be said to commence from the time when it began to be observed with the telescope. The history must be briefly alluded to, for it was only by degrees that the real nature of this complicated object was understood. When Galileo completed his little refracting telescope, which, though it only magnified thirty times, was yet an enormous addition to the powers of unaided vision, he made with it his memorable review of the heavens. He saw the spots on the sun and the mountains on the moon; he noticed the crescent of Venus and the satellites of Jupiter. Stimulated and encouraged by such brilliant discoveries, he naturally sought to examine the other planets, and accordingly directed his telescope to Saturn. Here, again, Galileo at once made a discovery. He saw that Saturn presented a visible form like the other planets, but that it differed from any other telescopic object, inasmuch as it appeared to him to be composed[Pg 274] of three bodies which always touched each other and always maintained the same relative positions. These three bodies were in a line—the central one was the largest, and the two others were east and west of it. There was nothing he had hitherto seen in the heavens which filled his mind with such astonishment, and which seemed so wholly inexplicable.

In his endeavours to understand this mysterious object, Galileo continued his observations during the year 1610, and, to his amazement, he saw the two lesser bodies gradually become smaller and smaller, until, in the course of the two following years, they had entirely vanished, and the planet simply appeared with a round disc like Jupiter. Here, again, was a new source of anxiety to Galileo. He had at that day to contend against the advocates of the ancient system of astronomy, who derided his discoveries and refused to accept his theories. He had announced his observation of the composite nature of Saturn; he had now to tell of the gradual decline and the ultimate extinction of these two auxiliary globes, and he naturally feared that his opponents would seize the opportunity of pronouncing that the whole of his observations were illusory.[25] "What," he remarks, "is to be said concerning so strange a metamorphosis? Are the two lesser stars consumed after the manner of the solar spots? Have they vanished and suddenly fled? Has Saturn perhaps, devoured his own children? Or were the appearances indeed illusion or fraud, with which the glasses have so long deceived me, as well as many others to whom I have shown them? Now, perhaps, is the time come to revive the well-nigh withered hopes of those who, guided by more profound contemplations, have discovered the fallacy of the new observations, and demonstrated the utter impossibility of their existence. I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked for, and so novel. The shortness of the time, the unexpected nature of the event, the weakness of my understanding, and the fear of being mistaken, have greatly confounded me."

But Galileo was not mistaken. The objects were really[Pg 275] there when he first began to observe, they really did decline, and they really disappeared; but this disappearance was only for a time—they again came into view. They were then subjected to ceaseless examination, until gradually their nature became unfolded. With increased telescopic power it was found that the two bodies which Galileo had described as globes on either side of Saturn were not really spherical—they were rather two luminous crescents with the concavity of each turned towards the central globe. It was also perceived that these objects underwent a remarkable series of periodic changes. At the beginning of such a series the planet was found with a truly circular disc. The appendages first appeared as two arms extending directly outwards on each side of the planet; then these arms gradually opened into two crescents, resembling handles to the globe, and attained their maximum width after about seven or eight years; then they began to contract, until after the lapse of about the same time they vanished again.

The true nature of these objects was at length discovered by Huyghens in 1655, nearly half a century after Galileo had first detected their appearance. He perceived the shadow thrown by the ring upon the globe, and his explanation of the phenomena was obtained in a very philosophical manner. He noticed that the earth, the sun, and the moon rotated upon their axes, and he therefore regarded it as a general law that each one of the bodies in the system rotates about an axis. It is true, observations had not yet been made which actually showed that Saturn was also rotating; but it would be highly, nay, indeed, infinitely, improbable that any planet should be devoid of such movement. All the analogies of the system pointed to the conclusion that the velocity of rotation would be considerable. One satellite of Saturn was already known to revolve in a period of sixteen days, being little more than half our month. Huyghens assumed—and it was a most reasonable assumption—that Saturn in all probability rotated rapidly on its axis. It was also to be observed that if these remarkable appendages were attached by an actual bodily connection to the planet they must rotate[Pg 276] with Saturn. If, however, the appendages were not actually attached it would still be necessary that they should rotate if the analogy of Saturn to other objects in the system were to be in any degree preserved. We see satellites near Jupiter which revolve around him. We see, nearer home, how the moon revolves around the earth. We see how all the planetary system revolves around the sun. All these considerations were present to Huyghens when he came to the conclusion that, whether the curious appendages were actually attached to the planet or were physically free from it, they must still be in rotation.

Provided with such reasonings, it soon became easy to conjecture the true nature of the Saturnian system. We have seen how the appendages declined to invisibility once every fifteen years, and then gradually reappeared in the form, at first, of rectilinear arms projecting outwards from the planet. The progressive development is a slow one, and for weeks and months, night after night, the same appearance is presented with but little change. But all this time both Saturn and the mysterious objects around him are rotating. Whatever these may be, they present the same appearance to the eye, notwithstanding their ceaseless motion of rotation.

What must be the shape of an object which satisfies the conditions here implied? It will obviously not suffice to regard the projections as two spokes diverging from the planet. They would change from visibility to invisibility in every rotation, and thus there would be ceaseless alterations of the appearance instead of that slow and gradual change which requires fifteen years for a complete period. There are, indeed, other considerations which preclude the possibility of the objects being anything of this character, for they are always of the same length as compared with the diameter of the planet. A little reflection will show that one supposition—and indeed only one—will meet all the facts of the case. If there were a thin symmetrical ring rotating in its own plane around the equator of Saturn, then the persistence of the object from night to night would be accounted for. This[Pg 277] at once removes the greater part of the difficulty. For the rest, it was only necessary to suppose that the ring was so thin that when turned actually edgewise to the earth it became invisible, and then as the illuminated side of the plane became turned more and more towards the earth the appendages to the planet gradually increased. The handle-shaped appearance which the object periodically assumed demonstrated that the ring could not be attached to the globe.

At length Huyghens found that he had the clue to the great enigma which had perplexed astronomers for the last fifty years. He saw that the ring was an object of astonishing interest, unique at that time, as it is, indeed, unique still. He felt, however, that he had hardly demonstrated the matter with all the certainty which it merited, and which he thought that by further attention he could secure. Yet he was loath to hazard the loss of his discovery by an undue postponement of its announcement, lest some other astronomer might intervene. How, then, was he to secure his priority if the discovery should turn out correct, and at the same time be enabled to perfect it at his leisure? He adopted the course, usual at the time, of making his first announcement in cipher, and accordingly, on March 5th, 1656, he published a tract, which contained the following proposition:—

Perhaps some of those curious persons whose successors now devote so much labour to double acrostics may have pondered on this renowned cryptograph, and even attempted to decipher it. But even if such attempts were made, we do not learn that they were successful. A few years of further study were thus secured to Huyghens. He tested his theory in every way that he could devise, and he found it verified in every detail. He therefore thought that it was needless for him any longer to conceal from the world his great discovery, and accordingly in the year 1659—about three years after the appearance of his cryptograph—he announced the interpretation of it. By[Pg 278] restoring the letters to their original arrangement the discovery was enunciated in the following words:—"Annulo cingitur, tenui, plano, nusquam cohærente, ad eclipticam inclinato," which may be translated into the statement:—"The planet is surrounded by a slender flat ring everywhere distinct from its surface, and inclined to the elliptic."

Huyghens was not content with merely demonstrating how fully this assumption explained all the observed phenomena. He submitted it to the further and most delicate test which can be applied to any astronomical theory. He attempted by its aid to make a prediction the fulfilment of which would necessarily give his theory the seal of certainty. From his calculations he saw that the planet would appear circular about July or August in 1671. This anticipation was practically verified, for the ring was seen to vanish in May of that year. No doubt, with our modern calculations founded on long-continued and accurate observation, we are now enabled to make forecasts as to the appearance or the disappearance of Saturn's ring with far greater accuracy; but, remembering the early stage in the history of the planet at which the prediction of Huyghens was made, we must regard its fulfilment as quite sufficient, and as confirming in a satisfactory manner the theory of Saturn and his ring.

The ring of Saturn having thus been thoroughly established as a fact in celestial architecture, each generation of astronomers has laboured to find out more and more of its marvellous features. In the frontispiece (Plate I.) we have a view of the planet as seen at the Harvard College Observatory, U.S.A., between July 28th and October 20th, 1872. It has been drawn by the skilful astronomer and artist—Mr. L. Trouvelot—and gives a faithful and beautiful representation of this unique object.

Fig. 64 is a drawing of the same object taken on July 2nd, 1894, by Prof. E.E. Barnard, at the Lick Observatory.

The next great discovery in the Saturnian system after those of Huyghens showed that the ring surrounding the planet was marked by a dark concentric line, which divided it into two parts—the outer being narrower than the inner. This line was first seen by J.D. Cassini, when Saturn emerged[Pg 279] from the rays of the sun in 1675. That this black line is not merely a black mark on the ring, but that it is actually a separation, was rendered very probable by the researches of Maraldi in 1715, followed many years later by those of Sir William Herschel, who, with that thoroughness which was a marked characteristic of the man, made a minute and scrupulous examination of Saturn. Night after night he followed it for hours with his exquisite instruments, and considerably added to our knowledge of the planet and his system.

Herschel devoted very particular attention to the examination of the line dividing the ring. He saw that the colour of this line was not to be distinguished from the colour of the space intermediate between the globe and the ring. He observed it for ten years on the northern face of the ring, and during that time it continued to present the same breadth and colour and sharpness of outline. He was then fortunate enough to observe the southern side of the ring. There again could the black line be seen, corresponding both in appearance and in position with the dark line as seen on the northern side. No doubt could remain as to the fact that Saturn was girdled by two concentric rings equally thin, the outer edge of one closely approaching to the inner edge of the other.

At the same time it is right to add that the only absolutely indisputable proof of the division between the rings has not yet been yielded by the telescope. The appearances noted by Herschel would be consistent with the view that the black line was merely a part of the ring extending through its thickness, and composed of materials very much less capable of reflecting light than the rest of the ring. It is still a matter of doubt how far it is ever possible actually to see through the dark line. There is apparently only one satisfactory method of accomplishing this. It would only occur in rare circumstances, and it does not seem that the opportunity has as yet arisen. Suppose that in the course of its motion through the heavens the path of Saturn happened to cross directly between the earth and a fixed star. The telescopic appearance of a star is merely a point of light much smaller than the globes and rings of Saturn. If the ring passed in front[Pg 280] of the star and the black line on the ring came over the star, we should, if the black line were really an opening, see the star shining through the narrow aperture.

Up to the present, we believe, there has been no opportunity of submitting the question of the duplex character of the ring to this crucial test. Let us hope that as there are now so many telescopes in use adequate to deal with the subject, there may, ere long, be observations made which will decide the question. It can hardly be expected that a very small star would be suitable. No doubt the smallness of the star would render the observations more delicate and precise if the star were visible; but we must remember that it will be thrown into contrast with the bright rings of Saturn on each margin so that unless the star were of considerable magnitude it would hardly answer. It has, however, been recently observed that the globe of the planet can be, in some degree, discerned through the dark line; this is practically a demonstration of the fact that the line is at all events partly transparent.

The outer ring is also divided into two by a line much fainter than that just described. It requires a good telescope and a fine night, combined with a favourable position of the planet, to render this line a well-marked object. It is most easily seen at the extremities of the ring most remote from the planet. To the present writer, who has examined the planet with the twelve-inch refractor of the South equatorial at Dunsink Observatory, this outer line appears as broad as the well-known line; but it is unquestionably fainter, and has a more shaded appearance. It certainly does not suggest the appearance of being actually an opening in the ring, and it is often invisible for a long time. It seems rather as if the ring were at this place thinner and less substantial without being actually void of substance.

On these points it may be expected that much additional information will be acquired when next the ring places itself in such a position that its plane, if produced, would pass between the earth and the sun. Such occasions are but rare, and even when they do occur it may happen that the planet will not[Pg 281] be well placed for observation. The next really good opportunity will not be till 1907. In this case the sunlight illuminates one side of the ring, while it is the other side of the ring that is presented towards the earth. Powerful telescopes are necessary to deal with the planet under such circumstances; but it may be reasonably hoped that the questions relating to the division of the ring, as well as to many other matters, will then receive some further elucidation.

Occasionally, other divisions of the ring, both inner and outer, have been recorded. It may, at all events, be stated that no such divisions can be regarded as permanent features. Yet their existence has been so frequently enunciated by skilful observers that it is impossible to doubt that they have been sometimes seen.

It was about 200 years after Huyghens had first explained the true theory of Saturn that another very important discovery was effected. It had, up to the year 1850, been always supposed that the two rings, divided by the well-known black line, comprised the entire ring system surrounding the planet. In the year just mentioned, Professor Bond, the distinguished astronomer of Cambridge, Mass., startled the astronomical world by the announcement of his discovery of a third ring surrounding Saturn. As so often happens in such cases, the same object was discovered independently by another—an English astronomer named Dawes. This third ring lies just inside the inner of the two well-known rings, and extends to about half the distance towards the body of the planet. It seems to be of a totally different character from the two other rings in so far as they present a comparatively substantial appearance. We shall, indeed, presently show that they are not solid—not even liquid bodies—but still, when compared with the third ring, the others were of a substantial character. They can receive and exhibit the deeply-marked shadow of Saturn, and they can throw a deep and black shadow upon Saturn themselves; but the third ring is of a much less compact texture. It has not the brilliancy of the others, it is rather of a dusky, semi-transparent appearance, and the expression "crape ring," by which it is often designated, is by no means inappropriate.[Pg 282] It is the faintness of this crape ring which led to its having been so frequently overlooked by the earlier observers of Saturn.

It has often been noticed that when an astronomical discovery has been made with a good telescope, it afterwards becomes possible for the same object to be observed with instruments of much inferior power. No doubt, when the observer knows what to look for, he will often be able to see what would not otherwise have attracted his attention. It may be regarded as an illustration of this principle, that the crape ring of Saturn has become an object familiar to those who are accustomed to work with good telescopes; but it may, nevertheless, be doubted whether the ease and distinctness with which the crape ring is now seen can be entirely accounted for by this supposition. Indeed, it seems possible that the crape ring has, from some cause or other, gradually become more and more visible. The supposed increased brightness of the crape ring is one of those arguments now made use of to prove that in all probability the rings of Saturn are at this moment undergoing gradual transformation; but observations of Hadley show that the crape ring was seen by him in 1720, and it was previously seen by Campani and Picard, as a faint belt crossing the planet. The partial transparency of the crape ring was beautifully illustrated in an observation by Professor Barnard of the eclipse of Iapetus on November 1st, 1889. The satellite was faintly visible in the shadow of the crape ring, while wholly invisible in the shadow of the better known rings.

The various features of the rings are well shown in the drawing of Trouvelot already referred to. We here see the inner and the outer ring, and the line of division between them. We see in the outer ring the faint traces of the line by which it is divided, and inside the inner ring we have a view of the curious and semi-transparent crape ring. The black shadow of the planet is cast upon the ring, thus proving that the ring, no less than the body of the planet, shines only in virtue of the sunlight which falls upon it. This shadow presents some anomalous features, but its[Pg 283] curious irregularity may be, to some extent, an optical illusion.

There can be no doubt that any attempt to depict the rings of Saturn only represents the salient features of that marvellous system. We are situated at such a great distance that all objects not of colossal dimensions are invisible. We have, indeed, only an outline, which makes us wish to be able to fill in the details. We long, for instance, to see the actual texture of the rings, and to learn of what materials they are made; we wish to comprehend the strange and filmy crape ring, so unlike any other object known to us in the heavens. There is no doubt that much may even yet be learned under all the disadvantageous conditions of our position; there is still room for the labour of whole generations of astronomers provided with splendid instruments. We want accurate drawings of Saturn under every conceivable aspect in which it may be presented. We want incessantly repeated measurements, of the most fastidious accuracy. These measures are to tell us the sizes and the shapes of the rings; they are to measure with fidelity the position of the dark lines and the boundaries of the rings. These measures are to be protracted for generations and for centuries; then and then only can terrestrial astronomers learn whether this elaborate system has really the attributes of permanence, or whether it may be undergoing changes.

We have been accustomed to find that the law of universal gravitation pervades every part of our system, and to look to gravitation for the explanation of many phenomena otherwise inexplicable. We have good reasons for knowing that in this marvellous Saturnian system the law of gravitation is paramount. There are satellites revolving around Saturn as well as a ring; these satellites move, as other satellites do, in conformity with the laws of Kepler; and, therefore, any theory as to the nature of Saturn's ring must be formed subject to the condition that it shall be attracted by the gigantic planet situated in its interior.

To a hasty glance nothing might seem easier than to reconcile the phenomena of the ring with the attraction of[Pg 284] the planet. We might suppose that the ring stands at rest symmetrically around the planet. At its centre the planet pulls in the ring equally on all sides, so that there is no tendency in it to move in one way rather than another; and, therefore, it will stay at rest. This will not do. A ring composed of materials almost infinitely rigid might possibly, under such circumstances, be for a moment at rest; but it could not remain permanently at rest any more than can a needle balanced vertically on its point. In each case the equilibrium is unstable. If the slightest cause of disturbance arise, the equilibrium is destroyed, and the ring would inevitably fall in upon the planet. Such causes of derangement are incessantly present, so that unstable equilibrium cannot be an appropriate explanation of the phenomena.

Even if this difficulty could be removed, there is still another, which would be quite insuperable if the ring be composed of any materials with which we are acquainted. Let us ponder for a moment on the matter, as it will lead up naturally to that explanation of the rings of Saturn which is now most generally accepted.

Imagine that you stood on the planet Saturn, near his equator; over your head stretches the ring, which sinks down to the horizon in the east and in the west. The half-ring above your horizon would then resemble a mighty arch, with a span of about a hundred thousand miles. Every particle of this arch is drawn towards Saturn by gravitation, and if the arch continue to exist, it must do so in obedience to the ordinary mechanical laws which regulate the railway arches with which we are familiar.

The continuance of these arches depends upon the resistance of the stones forming them to a crushing force. Each stone of an arch is subjected to a vast pressure, but stone is a material capable of resisting such pressure, and the arch remains. The wider the span of the arch the greater is the pressure to which each stone is exposed. At length a span is reached which corresponds to a pressure as great as the stones can safely bear, and accordingly we thus find the limiting span over which a single arch of masonry[Pg 285] can be constructed. Apply these principles to the stupendous arch formed by the ring of Saturn. It can be shown that the pressure on the materials of the arch capable of spanning an abyss of such awful magnitude would be something so enormous that no materials we know of would be capable of bearing it. Were the ring formed of the toughest steel that was ever made, the pressure would be so great that the metal would be squeezed like a liquid, and the mighty structure would collapse and fall down on the surface of the planet. It is not credible that any materials could exist capable of sustaining a stress so stupendous. The law of gravitation accordingly bids us search for a method by which the intensity of this stress can be mitigated.

One method is at hand, and is obviously suggested by analogous phenomena everywhere in our system. We have spoken of the ring as if it were at rest; let us now suppose it to be animated by a motion of rotation in its plane around Saturn as a centre. Instantly we have a force developed antagonistic to the gravitation of Saturn. This force is the so-called centrifugal force. If we imagine the ring to rotate, the centrifugal force at all points acts in an opposite direction to the attractive force, and hence the enormous stress on the ring can be abated and one difficulty can be overcome.

We can thus attribute to each ring a rotation which will partly relieve it from the stress the arch would otherwise have to sustain. But we cannot admit that the difficulty has been fully removed. Suppose that the outer ring revolve at such a rate as shall be appropriate to neutralise the gravitation on its outer edge, the centrifugal force will be less at the interior of the ring, while the gravitation will be greater; and hence vast stresses will be set up in the interior parts of the outer ring. Suppose the ring to rotate at such a rate as would be adequate to neutralise the gravitation at its inner margin; then the centrifugal force at the outer parts will largely exceed the gravitation, and there will be a tendency to disruption of the ring outwards.

To obviate this tendency we may assume the outer parts[Pg 286] of each ring to rotate more slowly than the inner parts. This naturally requires that the parts of the ring shall be mobile relatively to one another, and thus we are conducted to the suggestion that perhaps the rings are really composed of matter in a fluid state. The suggestion is, at first sight, a plausible one; each part of each ring would then move with an appropriate velocity, and the rings would thus exhibit a number of concentric circular currents with different velocities. The mathematician can push this inquiry a little farther, and he can study how this fluid would behave under such circumstances. His symbols can pursue the subject into the intricacies which cannot be described in general language. The mathematician finds that waves would originate in the supposed fluid, and that as these waves would lead to disruption of the rings, the fluid theory must be abandoned.

But we can still make one or two more suppositions. What if it be really true that the ring consist of an incredibly large number of concentric rings, each animated precisely with the velocity which would be suitable to the production of a centrifugal force just adequate to neutralise the attraction? No doubt this meets many of the difficulties: it is also suggested by those observations which have shown the presence of several dark lines on the ring. Here again dynamical considerations must be invoked for the reply. Such a system of solid rings is not compatible with the laws of dynamics.

We are, therefore, compelled to make one last attempt, and still further to subdivide the ring. It may seem rather startling to abandon entirely the supposition that the ring is in any sense a continuous body, but there remains no alternative. Look at it how we will, we seem to be conducted to the conclusion that the ring is really an enormous shoal of extremely minute bodies; each of these little bodies pursues an orbit of its own around the planet, and is, in fact, merely a satellite. These bodies are so numerous and so close together that they seem to us to be continuous, and they may be very minute—perhaps not larger than the globules of water found in an ordinary cloud over the surface of the[Pg 287] earth, which, even at a short distance, seems like a continuous body.

Until a few years ago this theory of the constitution of Saturn's rings, though unassailable from a mathematical point of view, had never been confirmed by observation. The only astronomer who maintained that he had actually seen the rings rotate was W. Herschel, who watched the motion of some luminous points on the ring in 1789, at which time the plane of the ring happened to pass through the earth. From these observations Herschel concluded that the ring rotated in ten hours and thirty-two minutes. But none of the subsequent observers, even though they may have watched Saturn with instruments very superior to that used by Herschel, were ever able to succeed in verifying his rotation of these appendages of Saturn. If the ring were composed of a vast number of small bodies, then the third law of Kepler will enable us to calculate the time which these tiny satellites would require to travel completely round the planet. It appears that any satellite situated at the outer edge of the ring would require as long a period as 13 hrs. 46 min., those about the middle would not need more than 10 hrs. 28 min., while those at the inner edge of the ring would accomplish their rotation in 7 hrs. 28 min. Even our mightiest telescopes, erected in the purest skies and employed by the most skilful astronomers, refuse to display this extremely delicate phenomenon. It would, indeed, have been a repetition on a grand scale of the curious behaviour of the inner satellite of Mars, which revolves round its primary in a shorter time than the planet itself takes to turn round on its own axis.

Fig. 66.—Prof. Keeler's Method of Measuring the Rotation of Saturn's Ring.

But what the telescope could not show, the spectroscope has lately demonstrated in a most effective and interesting manner. We have explained in the chapter on the sun how the motion of a source of light along the line of vision, towards or away from the observer, produces a slight shift in the position of the lines of the spectrum. By the measurement of the displacement of the lines the direction and amount of the motion of the source of light may be determined. We illustrated the method by showing how it had actually been used to measure the speed of rotation of the solar surface. In 1895 Professor Keeler,[26] Director of the Allegheny Observatory, succeeded in measuring the rotation of Saturn's ring in this manner. He placed the slit of his spectroscope across the ball, in the direction of the major axis of the elliptic figure which the effect of perspective gives the ring as shown by the parallel lines in Fig. 66 stretching[Pg 289] from e to w. His photographic plate should then show three spectra close together, that of the ball of Saturn in the middle, separated by dark intervals from the narrower spectra above and below it of the two handles (or ansæ, as they are generally called) of the ring. In Fig. 67 we have represented the behaviour of any one line of the spectrum under various suppositions as to rotation or non-rotation of Saturn and the ring. At the top (1) we see how each line would look if there was no rotatory motion; the three lines produced by ring, planet, and ring are in a straight line. Of course the spectrum, which is practically a very faint copy of the solar spectrum, shows the principal dark Fraunhofer lines, so that the reader must imagine these for himself, parallel to the one we show in the figure. But Saturn and the ring are not standing still, they are rotating, the eastern part (at e) moving towards us, and the western part (w) moving away[Pg 290] from us.[27] At e the line will therefore be shifted towards the violet end of the spectrum and at w towards the red, and as the actual linear velocity is greater the further we get away from the centre of Saturn (assuming ring and planet to rotate together), the lines would be turned as in Fig. 67 (2), but the three would remain in a straight line. If the ring consisted of two independent rings separated by Cassini's division and rotating with different velocities, the lines would be situated as in Fig. 67 (3), the lines due to the inner ring being more deflected than those due to the outer ring, owing to the greater velocity of the inner ring.

Fig. 67.—Prof. Keeler's Method of Measuring the Rotation of Saturn's Ring.

Finally, let us consider the case of the rings, consisting of innumerable particles moving round the planet in accordance with Kepler's third law. The actual velocities of these particles would be per second:—

The shifting of the lines of the spectrum should be in accordance with these velocities, and it is easy to see that the lines ought to lie as in the fourth figure. When Professor Keeler came to examine the photographed spectra, he found the lines of the three spectra tilted precisely in this manner, showing that the outer edge of the ring was travelling round the planet with a smaller linear velocity than the inner one, as it ought to do if the sources of light (or, rather, the reflectors of sunlight) were independent particles free to move according to Kepler's third law, and as it ought not to do if the ring, or rings, were rigid, in which case the outer edge would have the greatest linear speed, as it had to travel through the greatest distance. Here, at last, was the proof of the meteoritic composition of Saturn's ring. Professor Keeler's beautiful discovery has since been verified by repeated observations at[Pg 291] the Allegheny, Lick, Paris, and Pulkova Observatories; the actual velocities resulting from the observed displacements of the lines have been measured and found to agree well (within the limits of the errors of observation) with the calculated velocities, so that this brilliant confirmation of the mathematical deductions of Clerk Maxwell is raised beyond the possibility of doubt.

The spectrum of Saturn is so faint that only the strongest lines of the solar spectrum can be seen in it, but the atmosphere of the planet seems to exert a considerable amount of general absorption in the blue and violet parts of the spectrum, which is especially strong near the equatorial belt, while a strong band in the red testifies to the density of the atmosphere. This band is not seen in the spectrum of the rings, around which there can therefore be no atmosphere.

As Saturn's ring is itself unique, we cannot find elsewhere any very pertinent illustration of a structure so remarkable as that now claimed for the ring. Yet the solar system does show some analogous phenomena. There is, for instance, one on a very grand scale surrounding the sun himself. We allude to the multitude of minor planets, all confined within a certain region of the system. Imagine these planets to be vastly increased in number, and those orbits which are much inclined to the rest flattened down and otherwise adjusted, and we should have a ring surrounding the sun, thus producing an arrangement not dissimilar from that now attributed to Saturn.

It is tempting to linger still longer over this beautiful system, to speculate on the appearance which the ring would present to an inhabitant of Saturn, to conjecture whether it is to be regarded as a permanent feature of our system in the same way as we attribute permanence to our moon or to the satellites of Jupiter. Looked at from every point of view, the question is full of interest, and it provides occupation abundant for the labours of every type of astronomer. If he be furnished with a good telescope, then has he ample duties to fulfil in the task of surveying, of sketching, and of measuring. If he be one of those useful astronomers[Pg 292] who devote their energies not to actual telescopic work, but to forming calculations based on the observations of others, then the beautiful system of Saturn provides copious material. He has to foretell the different phases of the ring, to announce to astronomers when each feature can be best seen, and at what hour each element can be best determined. He has also to predict the times of the movements of Saturn's satellites, and the other phenomena of a system more elaborate than that of Jupiter.

Lastly, if the astronomer be one of that class—perhaps, from some points of view, the highest class of all—who employ the most profound researches of the human intellect to unravel the dynamical problems of astronomy, he, too, finds in Saturn problems which test to the utmost, even if they do not utterly transcend, the loftiest flights of analysis. He discovers in Saturn's ring an object so utterly unlike anything else, that new mathematical weapons have to be forged for the encounter. He finds in the system so many extraordinary features, and such delicacy of adjustment, that he is constrained to admit that if he did not actually see Saturn's rings before him, he would not have thought that such a system was possible. The mathematician's labours on this wondrous system are at present only in their infancy. Not alone are the researches of so abstruse a character as to demand the highest genius for this branch of science, but even yet the materials for the inquiry have not been accumulated. In a discussion of this character, observation must precede calculation. The scanty observations hitherto obtained, however they may illustrate the beauty of the system, are still utterly insufficient to form the basis of that great mathematical theory of Saturn which must eventually be written.

But Saturn possesses an interest for a far more numerous class of persons than those who are specially devoted to astronomy. It is of interest, it must be of interest, to every cultivated person who has the slightest love for nature. A lover of the picturesque cannot behold Saturn in a telescope without feelings of the liveliest emotion; while, if his reading and reflection have previously rendered him aware of the[Pg 293] colossal magnitude of the object at which he is looking, he will be constrained to admit that no more remarkable spectacle is presented in the whole of nature.

We have pondered so long over the fascinations of Saturn's ring that we can only give a very brief account of that system of satellites by which the planet is attended. We have already had occasion to allude more than once to these bodies; it only remains now to enumerate a few further particulars.

It was on the 25th of March, 1655, that the first satellite of Saturn was detected by Huyghens, to whose penetration we owe the discovery of the true form of the ring. On the evening of the day referred to, Huyghens was examining Saturn with a telescope constructed with his own hands, when he observed a small star-like object near the planet. The next night he repeated his observations, and it was found that the star was accompanying the planet in its progress through the heavens. This showed that the little object was really a satellite to Saturn, and further observations revealed the fact that it was revolving around him in a period of 15 days, 22 hours, 41 minutes. Such was the commencement of that numerous series of discoveries of satellites which accompany Saturn. One by one they were detected, so that at the present time no fewer than nine are known to attend the great planet through his wanderings. The subsequent discoveries were, however, in no case made by Huyghens, for he abandoned the search for any further satellites on grounds which sound strange to modern ears, but which were quite in keeping with the ideas of his time. It appears that from some principle of symmetry, Huyghens thought that it would accord with the fitness of things that the number of satellites, or secondary planets, should be equal in number to the primary planets themselves. The primary planets, including the earth, numbered six; and Huyghens' discovery now brought the total number of satellites to be also six. The earth had one, Jupiter had four, Saturn had one, and the system was complete.

Nature, however, knows no such arithmetical doctrines as those which Huyghens attributed to her. Had he been less[Pg 294] influenced by such prejudices, he might, perhaps, have anticipated the labours of Cassini, who, by discovering other satellites of Saturn, demonstrated the absurdity of the doctrine of numerical equality between planets and satellites. As further discoveries were made, the number of satellites was at first raised above the number of planets; but in recent times, when the swarm of minor planets came to be discovered, the number of planets speedily reached and speedily passed the number of their attendant satellites.

It was in 1671, about sixteen years after the discovery of the first satellite of Saturn, that a second was discovered by Cassini. This is the outermost of the older satellites; it takes 79 days to travel round Saturn. In the following year he discovered another; and twelve years later, in 1684, still two more; thus making a total of five satellites to this planet.

Fig. 68.—Transit of Titan and its Shadow, by F. Terby Louvain, 12th April, 1892.

The complexity of the Saturnian system had now no rival in the heavens. Saturn had five satellites, and Jupiter had but four, while at least one of the satellites of Saturn, named Titan, was larger than any satellite of Jupiter.[28] Some of the discoveries of Cassini had been made with telescopes of quite monstrous dimensions. The length of the instrument, or rather the distance at which the object-glass was placed, was one hundred feet or more from the eye of the observer. It seemed hardly possible to push telescopic research farther with instruments of this cumbrous type. At length, however, the great reformation in the construction of astronomical instruments began to dawn. In the hands of Herschel, it was found possible to construct reflecting telescopes of manageable dimensions, which were both more powerful and more accurate than the long-focussed lenses of Cassini. A great instrument of this kind, forty feet long, just completed by Herschel, was directed to Saturn on the 28th of August, 1789. Never before had the wondrous planet been submitted to a scrutiny so minute. Herschel was familiar with the labours of his predecessors. He had often looked at Saturn and his five moons in inferior telescopes; now again he saw the five moons and a star-like object so near the plane of the ring that he conjectured this to be a sixth satellite. A speedy method of testing this conjecture was at hand. Saturn was then moving rapidly over the heavens. If this new object were in truth a satellite, then it must be carried on by Saturn. Herschel watched with anxiety to see whether this would be the case. A short time sufficed to answer the question; in two hours and a half the planet had moved to a distance quite appreciable, and had carried with him not only the five satellites already known, but also this sixth object. Had this been a star it would have been left behind; it was not left behind, and hence it, too, was a satellite. Thus, after the long lapse of a century, the telescopic discovery of satellites to Saturn recommenced. Herschel, as was his wont, observed this object with unremitting ardour, and discovered that it was much nearer to Saturn than any of the previously known satellites. In accordance with the general law, that the nearer the satellite the shorter the period of revolution, Herschel found that this little moon completed a revolution in about 1 day, 8 hours, 53 minutes. The same great telescope, used with the same unrivalled skill, soon led Herschel to a still more interesting discovery.[Pg 296] An object so small as only to appear like a very minute point in the great forty-foot reflector was also detected by Herschel, and was by him proved to be a satellite, so close to the planet that it completed a revolution in the very brief period of 22 hours and 37 minutes. This is an extremely delicate object, only to be seen by the best telescopes in the brief intervals when it is not entirely screened from view by the ring.

Again another long interval elapsed, and for almost fifty years the Saturnian system was regarded as consisting of the series of rings and of the seven satellites. The next discovery has a singular historical interest. It was made simultaneously by two observers—Professor Bond, of Cambridge, Mass., and Mr. Lassell, of Liverpool—for on the 19th September, 1848, both of these astronomers verified that a small point which they had each seen on previous nights was really a satellite. This object is, however, at a considerable distance from the planet, and requires 21 days, 7 hours, 28 minutes for each revolution; it is the seventh in order from the planet.

Yet one more extremely faint outer satellite was discerned by photography on the 16th, 17th, and 18th August, 1898, by Professor W.H. Pickering. This object is much more distant from the planet than the larger and older satellites. Its motion has not yet been fully determined, but probably it requires not less than 490 days to perform a single revolution.

From observations of the satellites it has been found that 3,500 globes as heavy as Saturn would weigh as much as the sun.

A law has been observed by Professor Kirkwood, which connects together the movements of the four interior satellites of Saturn. This law is fulfilled in such a manner as leads to the supposition that it arises from the mutual attraction of the satellites. We have already described a similar law relative to three of the satellites of Jupiter. The problem relating to Saturn, involving as it does no fewer than four satellites, is one of no ordinary complexity. It involves the theory of Perturbations to a greater degree than that to[Pg 297] which mathematicians are accustomed in their investigation of the more ordinary features of our system. To express this law it is necessary to have recourse to the daily movements of the satellites; these are respectively—

The law states that if to five times the movement of the first satellite we add that of the third and four times that of the fourth, the whole will equal ten times the movement of the second satellite. The calculation stands thus:—

Nothing can be simpler than the verification of this law; but the task of showing the physical reason why it should be fulfilled has not yet been accomplished.

Saturn was the most distant planet known to the ancients. It revolves in an orbit far outside the other ancient planets, and, until the discovery of Uranus in the year 1781, the orbit of Saturn might well be regarded as the frontier of the solar system. The ringed planet was indeed a worthy object to occupy a position so distinguished. But we now know that the mighty orbit of Saturn does not extend to the frontiers of the solar system; a splendid discovery, leading to one still more splendid, has vastly extended the boundary, by revealing two mighty planets, revolving in dim telescopic distance, far outside the path of Saturn. These objects have not the beauty of Saturn; they are, indeed, in no sense effective telescopic pictures. Yet these outer planets awaken an interest of a most special kind. The discovery of each is a classical event in the history of astronomy, and the opinion has been maintained, and perhaps with reason, that the discovery of Neptune, the more remote of the two, is the greatest achievement in astronomy made since the time of Newton.

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