Huggins, Maxwell, 1868 //Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 158 (1868)

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of these prismatic observations. Some comets have approached the sun sufficiently near to acquire a temperature high enough to convert even carbon into vapour*. Indeed for these comets a body of great fixity seems to be necessary. In the case of comets which have been submitted to a less fierce glare of solar heat, it may be suggested that this supposed difficulty is one of degree only; for we do not know of any conditions under which even a gas, permanent at the temperature of the earth, could maintain sufficient heat to emit light, a state of things which appears to exist permanently in the case of the gaseous nebulae.

If the substance of the comet be taken to be pure carbon, it would appear probable that the nucleus had been condensed from the gaseous state in which it existed at some former period. It would therefore probably consist of carbon in a state of excessively minute division. In such a form it would be able to take in nearly the whole of the sun’s energy, and thus acquire more speedily a temperature high enough for its conversion into vapour. In the liquid or gaseous state, or in a continuous solid state, this substance appears, from Dr. Tyndall’s researches, to be diathermanous. Still, under the most favourable of known conditions, the solar heat, to which the majority of comets are subjected, would seem to be inadequate to the production of luminous vapour of carbon.

It should be stated that olefiant gas when burnt in air may give a similar spectrum of shaded bands. If the gas be ignited at the orifice of the tube from which it issues, the flame is brilliantly white, and gives a continuous spectrum. When a jet of air is directed through the flame it becomes less luminous, and of a greenish-blue colour. The spectrum is now no longer continuous, but exhibits the bands distinctive of carbon. Under these circumstances, for obvious reasons, the bright lines of the hydrogen spectrum are not seen. In this way a spectrum resembling that of the comet may be obtained, with the difference that the fourth more refrangible band, which was not seen in the cometic spectrum, is stronger relatively to the other bands, than is the case when the spark is taken in olefiant gas. If we were to conceive the comet to consist of a compound of carbon and hydrogen, we should diminish in some degree the necessity for the excessively high temperature which pure carbon appears to require for its conversion into luminous vapour ; but other difficulties would arise in connexion with the decomposition we must then suppose to take place; for we have no evidence, I believe, that olefiant gas or any other known compound of carbon can furnish this peculiar spectrum of shaded bands without undergoing decomposition. If, indeed, it were allowable to suppose a state of combustion, with oxygen or some other element, set up by the solar heat, we should have an explanation of a possible source of a degree of heat sufficient to render the cometary matter luminous, and which the sun’s heat would be directly inadequate to produce.

* The comet of* 1843 “ approached the luminous surface of the sun within about a seventh part of the sun’s radius. The heat to which the comet was subjected (a glare as that of 47,000 suns, such as we experience the warmth of) surpassed that in the focus of Parker’s great lens in the proportion of 24J to 1 without, or 3| to 1 with the concentrating lens. Yet that lens so used melted cornelian, agate, and rock-crystal.”—Sir John Herschel, Outlines of Astronomy, 7th edit. p. 401.

4 H 2

There is one observation made by Bunsen which appears to stand as an exception to the rule that only bodies in the gaseous state give, when luminous, discontinuous spectra. Bunsen discovered that solid erbia, when heated to incandescence, gives a spectrum containing bright bands. It is therefore conceivable, though all the evidence we possess from experience is opposed to the supposition, that carbon might exist in some form in which it would possess a similar power of giving a discontinuous spectrum without volatilization. There is the further objection to this hypothesis, that the telescopic phenomena observed in comets appear to show that vaporization does usually take place.

However this may be, a state of gas appears to accord with the very small power of reflexion which the matter of the coma of this comet possessed, as was shown by the great faintness of the continuous spectrum.

A remarkable circumstance connected with comets is the great transparency of the bright cometary matter. The most remarkable instance is that of Miss Mitchell’s comet in 1847, which passed centrally over a star of the fifth magnitude. “ The star’s light appeared in no way enfeebled, yet such a star would be completely obliterated by a moderate fog extending a few yards from the surface of the earth”*. We do not know what amount of transparency is possessed by the vapour of carbon, but the absence of a continuous spectrum seems to show that, as it existed in the comet, it was almost perfectly transparent. The light of a star would suffer, therefore, only that kind and degree of absorption which corresponds with its power of radiation, as shown by its spectrum of bright lines. As these occur in the brightest part of the spectrum, we should expect a noticeable diminution of the star’s light, if it were not for the luminous condition of the gas, in consequence of which it would give back to the beam light of precisely the same refrangibilities as it had taken, and so enable the part of the field occupied by the image of the star to appear of its original brightness, or nearly so. This state of things would not prevent an apparent diminution of the star’s light from the effect upon the eye of the brightness of the surrounding field. In the case of the tails of comets, the great transparency observed is more probably to be referred to the widely scattered condition of the minute particles of the cometary matter.

I may be permitted to repeat here a paragraph from my paper on the Spectrum of Comet I., 1866f.

“ Terrestrial phenomena would suggest that the parts of a comet which are bright by reflecting the sun’s light, are probably in the condition of fog or cloud.

“We know, from observation, that the comse and tails of comets are formed from the matter contained in the nucleus^.

* Outlines of Astronomy, p. 373. + Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. xv. p. 5.

t The head of Halley’s comet in 1835 in a telescope of great power “ exhibited the appearance of jets as it were of flame, or rather of luminous smoke, like a gas fan-light. These varied from day to day, as if wavering backwards and forwards, as if they were thrown out of particular parts of the internal nucleus or kernel which shifted round, or to or fro by their recoil like a squib not held fast. The bright smoke of these jets, however, never seemed to be able to get far out towards the sun, but always to be driven back and forced into the tail as if by the action of a violent wind setting against them (always from the sun), so as to make it clear that the

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