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

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“ The usual order of the phenomena which attend the formation of a tail appears to be that, as the comet approaches the sun, material is thrown off, at intervals, from the nucleus in the direction towards the sun. This material is not at once driven into the tail, but usually forms in front of the nucleus a dense luminous cloud, into which for a time the bright matter of the nucleus continues to stream. In this way a succession of envelopes may be formed, the material of which afterwards is dissipated in a direction opposite to the sun, and forms the tail. Between these envelopes dark spaces are usually seen.

“ If the matter of the nucleus is capable of forming by condensation a cloud-like mass, there must be an intermediate state in which the matter ceases to be self-luminous, but yet retains its gaseous state, and reflects but little light. Such a non-luminous and transparent condition of the cometary matter may possibly be represented by some at least of the dark spaces which, in some comets, separate the cloud-like envelopes from the nucleus and from each other.”

Now considerable differences of colour have been remarked in the different parts of some comets. The spectrum of this comet would show that its colour was bluish green. Sir W. Herschel described the head of the Comet of 1811 to be of a greenish or bluish-green colour, while the central point appeared to be of a pale ruddy tint. The representations of Halley’s comet at its appearance in 1835, by the elder Struve, are coloured bluish green, and the nucleus on October 9 is coloured reddish yellow. He describes the nucleus on that day, thus:—“ Der Kern zeigte sich wie eine kleine, etwas ins gelb-liche spielende, gliihende Kohle von langlicher Form”*. Dr. Winnecke describes similar colours in the bright comet of 1862. “Die Farbe des Strahls erscheint mir gelbrothlich; die des umgebenden Nebels (vielleicht aus Contrast) mattblaulich.” “ Die Farbe der Ausstromung erscheint mir gelblich; die Coma hat blauliches Licht”f.

Now carbon, if incandescent in the solid state, or reflecting, when in a condition of minute division the light of the sun, would afford a light which, in comparison with that emitted by the luminous vapour of carbon, would appear as yellowish or approaching to red.

The views of comets presented in this paper do not, however, afford any clue to the great mystery which surrounds the enormous rapidity with which the tail is often projected to immense distances. There are not any known properties peculiar to carbon, even when in a condition of extremely minute division, which would help to a solution of the enigma of the violent repulsive power from the sun which appears to be exerted upon cometary matter shortly after its expulsion from the nucleus, and upon matter

tail is neither more or less than the accumulation of this sort of luminous vapour darted off, in the first instance towards the sun, as it were something raised up, and, as it were, exploded by the sun’s heat out of the-kernel, and then immediately and forcibly turned back and repelled from the sun.”—Sir John Herschel. Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects, p. 115.

* Beobachtungen des Halleyschen Cometen, s. 41.

t Memoires de PAcademie Imperiale des Sciences de St. Petersbourg, tome vii. No. 7.

in this condition only. It may be that this apparent repulsion takes place at the time of the condensation of the gaseous matter of the coma, into the excessively minute solid particles of which the tail probably consists. There is a phenomenon occasionally seen which must not be passed without notice, namely, the formation of faint narrow rays of light, or secondary tails, which start off usually from the brightest side of the principal tail, not far from the head. Sir John Herschel* considers that “they clearly indicate an analysis of the cometic matter by the sun’s repulsive action, the matter of the secondary tails being darted off with incomparably greater velocity (indicating an incomparably greater intensity of repulsive energy) than that which went to form the primary one.” The important differences which exist between the spectrum of Brorsen’s comet and that of Comet II., 1868, appear to show that comets may vary in their constitution. If the phenomenon of the secondary tails were observed in a comet which, like Comet II., 1868, appears to consist of carbon, the analytical action supposed by Sir John Herschel might be to separate between particles of carbon in different conditions, or possibly in a state of more or less subdivision. The enormous extent of space, sometimes a hundred millions of miles in length, over which a comparatively minute portion of cometary matter is in this way diffused, would suggest that we have in this phenomenon a remarkable instance of the extreme division of matter. Perhaps it would be too bold a speculation to suggest that, under the circumstances which attend the condensation of the gaseous matter into discrete solid particles, the division may be pushed to its utmost limit, or nearly so. If we could conceive the separate atoms to be removed beyond the sphere of their mutual attraction of cohesion, it might be that they would be affected by the sun’s energy in a way altogether different from that of which we have been hitherto the witnesses upon the earth.

Though comets may differ in their constitution, reference may be permitted to the periodical meteors which have been shown to move in orbits identical with those of some comets. If these consist of carbon, we might have some explanation of the appearances presented by these meteors, though their light is doubtless greatly modified by that of the air rendered luminous by their passage, as well as by the degree of temperature to which they are raised. Carbon is abundantly present in some meteorites, but we have no certain evidence at present that the periodical meteors belong to this class of celestial bodies.

Note to Plate XXXIII.

In fig. 2, the bright line at the beginning of the middle band of the spectrum of olefiant gas is made too strong,

* Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects, p. 129.

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