Off on a Comet

Chapter XXXIII

Concerning Jupiter, the “Great Disturber of Comets”

Except as to the time the comet would take to revolve round the sun, it must be confessed that all the professor’s calculations had comparatively little interest for anyone but himself, and he was consequently left very much to pursue his studies in solitude.

The following day was the 1st of August, or, according to Rosette, the 63rd of April. In the course of this month Gallia would travel 16,500,000 leagues, attaining at the end a distance of 197,000,000 leagues from the sun. This would leave 81,000,000 leagues more to be traversed before reaching the aphelion on the 15th of January, after which it would begin once more to approach the sun.

But meanwhile, a marvellous world, never before so close within the range of human vision, was revealing itself.

No wonder that Palmyrin Rosette cared so little to quit his observatory; for throughout those calm, clear Gallian nights, when the book of the firmament lay open before him, he could revel in a spectacle which no previous astronomer had ever been permitted to enjoy.

The glorious orb that was becoming so conspicuous an object was none other than the planet Jupiter, the largest of all the bodies existing within the influence of solar attraction. During the seven months that had elapsed since its collision with the Earth, the comet had been continuously approaching the planet, until the distance between them was scarcely more than 61,000,000 leagues, and this would go on diminishing until the 15th of October.

Under these circumstances, was it perfectly certain that no danger could accrue? Was not Gallia, when its pathway led it into such close proximity to this enormous planet, running a risk of being attracted within its influence? Might not that influence be altogether disastrous? The professor, it is true, in his estimate of the duration of his comet’s revolution, had represented that he had made all proper allowances for any perturbations that would be caused either by Jupiter, by Saturn, or by Mars; but what if there were any errors in his calculations? what if there should be any elements of disturbance on which he had not reckoned?

Speculations of this kind became more and more frequent, and Lieutenant Procope pointed out that the danger incurred might be of a fourfold character:

First, that the comet, being irresistibly attracted, might be drawn on to the very surface of the planet, and there annihilated.
Secondly, that as the result of being brought under that attraction, it might be transformed into a satellite, or even a sub-satellite, of that mighty world.
Thirdly, that it might be diverted into a new orbit, which would never be coincident with the ecliptic.
Lastly, its course might be so retarded that it would only reach the ecliptic too late to permit any junction with the Earth. The occurrence of any one of these contingencies would be fatal to their hopes of reunion with the globe, from which they had been so strangely severed.

To Rosette, who, without family ties which he had never found leisure or inclination to contract, had no shadow of desire to return to the Earth, it would be only the first of these probabilities that could give him any concern. Total annihilation might not accord with his views, but he would be quite content for Gallia to miss its mark with regard to the Earth, indifferent whether it revolved as a new satellite around Jupiter, or whether it wended its course through the untraversed regions of the milky way. The rest of the community, however, by no means sympathized with the professor’s sentiments, and the following month was a period of considerable doubt and anxiety.

On the 1st of September the distance between Gallia and Jupiter was precisely the same as the mean distance between the Earth and the sun; on the 16th, the distance was further reduced to 26,000,000 leagues. The planet began to assume enormous dimensions, and it almost seemed as if the comet had already been deflected from its elliptical orbit, and was rushing on in a straight line towards the overwhelming luminary.

The more they contemplated the character of this gigantic planet, the more they became impressed with the likelihood of a serious perturbation in their own course. The diameter of Jupiter is 85,390 miles, nearly eleven times as great as that of the Earth; his volume is 1,387 times, and his mass 300 times greater; and although the mean density is only about a quarter of that of the Earth, and only a third of that of water (whence it has been supposed that the superficies of Jupiter is liquid), yet his other proportions were large enough to warrant the apprehension that important disturbances might result from his proximity.

“I forget my astronomy, lieutenant,” said Servadac. “Tell me all you can about this formidable neighbour.”

The lieutenant having refreshed his memory by reference to Flammarion’s Recits de l’Infini, of which he had a Russian translation, and some other books, proceeded to recapitulate that Jupiter accomplishes his revolution round the sun in 4,332 days 14 hours and 2 minutes; that he travels at the rate of 467 miles a minute along an orbit measuring 2,976 millions of miles; and that his rotation on his axis occupies only 9 hours and 55 minutes.

“His days, then, are shorter than ours?” interrupted the captain.

“Considerably,” answered the lieutenant, who went on to describe how the displacement of a point at the equator of Jupiter was twenty-seven times as rapid as on the Earth, causing the polar compression to be about 2,378 miles; how the axis, being nearly perpendicular, caused the days and nights to be nearly of the same length, and the seasons to be invariable; and how the amount of light and heat received by the planet is only a twenty-fifth part of that received by the Earth, the average distance from the sun being 475,693,000 miles.

“And how about these satellites? Sometimes, I suppose, Jupiter has the benefit of four moons all shining at once?” asked Servadac.

Of the satellites, Lieutenant Procope went on to say that one is rather smaller than our own moon; that another moves round its primary at an interval about equal to the moon’s distance from ourselves; but that they all revolve in considerably less time: the first takes only 1 day 18 hours 27 minutes; the second takes 3 days 13 hours 14 minutes; the third, 7 days 3 hours 42 minutes; whilst the largest of all takes but 16 days 16 hours 32 minutes. The most remote revolves round the planet at a distance of 1,192,820 miles.

“They have been enlisted into the service of science,” said Procope. “It is by their movements that the velocity of light has been calculated; and they have been made available for the determination of terrestrial longitudes.”

“It must be a wonderful sight,” said the captain.

“Yes,” answered Procope. “I often think Jupiter is like a prodigious clock with four hands.”

“A clock too monstrous for my mantelpiece,” put in Ben Zoof. “I only hope that we are not destined to make a fifth hand,” answered Servadac.

Such was the style of the conversation that was day by day reiterated during the whole month of suspense. Whatever topic might be started, it seemed soon to settle down upon the huge orb that was looming upon them with such threatening aspect.

One day the conversation turned upon the age of these diverse planets, forever circling the sun. Procope consulted Flammarion’s Recits de l’Infini.

“The more remote that these planets are from the sun,” said Procope, “the more venerable and advanced in formation are they found to be. Neptune, situated 2,746,271,000 miles from the sun, issued from the solar nebulosity thousands of millions of centuries back. Uranus, revolving 1,753,851,000 miles from the centre of the planetary system, is of an age amounting to many hundred millions of centuries. Jupiter, the colossal planet, gravitating at a distance of 475,693,000 miles, may be reckoned as 70,000,000 centuries old. Mars has existed for 1,000,000,000 years at a distance of 139,212,000 miles. The Earth, 91,430,000 miles from the sun, quitted his burning bosom 100,000,000 years ago. Venus, revolving now 66,131,000 miles away, may be assigned the age of 50,000,000 years at least; and Mercury, nearest of all, and youngest of all, has been revolving at a distance of 35,393,000 miles for the space of 10,000,000 years—the same time as the moon has been evolved from the Earth.”

Servadac listened attentively. He was at a loss what to say; and the only reply he made to the recital of this novel theory was to the effect that, if it were true, he would prefer being captured by Mercury than by Jupiter, for Mercury, being so much the younger, would probably prove the less imperative and self-willed master.

It was on the 1st of September that the comet had crossed the orbit of Jupiter, and on the 1st of October the two bodies were calculated to be at their minimum separation. No direct collision, however, could be apprehended; the demonstration was sufficiently complete that the orbit of Gallia did not coincide with that of the planet, the orbit of Jupiter being inclined at an angle of 1 degree 19 mins to the orbit of the Earth, with which that of Gallia was, no doubt, coincident.

As the month of September verged towards its close, Jupiter began to wear an aspect that must have excited the admiration of the most ignorant or the most indifferent observer. Its salient points were illumined with novel and radiant tints, and the solar rays, reflected from its disc, glowed with a mingled softness and intensity upon Gallia, so that Nerina had to pale her beauty.

Who could wonder that Rosette, enthusiast as he was, should be irremovable from his observatory? Who could expect otherwise than that, with the prospect before him of viewing the giant among planets, ten times nearer than any mortal eye had ever done, he should have begrudged every moment that distracted his attention?

Meanwhile, as Jupiter grew large, the sun grew small. From its increased remoteness the diameter of the sun’s disc was diminished to 5 degrees 46 mins.

A few days before Jupiter and Gallia passed one another at their closest approach, the planet’s satellites became visible to the naked eye. And what an increased interest began to be associated with these satellites! Was it not a new record in the annals of science? Although it is acknowledged that they are not ordinarily visible on Earth without the aid of a somewhat powerful telescope, it has been asserted that a favoured few, endued with extraordinary powers of vision, have been able to identify them with an unassisted eye; amongst others the annals of science cite Moestlin, the teacher of Kepler; a Siberian huntsman (according to Wrangel) and, later on, accord to the testimony Bogulawski, director of the observatory at Breslaw, there was a master tailor in that town who could perform this impressive ocular feat. But here, at least, in Nina’s Hive these individuals had many rivals, for everyone could so far distinguish them one from the other as to describe them by their colours. The first was of a dull white shade; the second was blue; the third was white and brilliant; the fourth was orange, at times approaching to a red. It was further observed that Jupiter itself was almost void of scintillation.

Rosette, in his absorbing interest for the glowing glories of the planet, seemed to be beguiled into comparative forgetfulness of the charms of his comet; but no astronomical enthusiasm of the professor could quite allay the general apprehension that some serious collision might be impending.

Time passed on. There was nothing to justify apprehension. The question was continually being asked, “What does the professor really think?”

“Our friend the professor,” said Servadac, “is not likely to tell us very much; but we may feel pretty certain of one thing: he wouldn’t keep us long in the dark, if he thought we were not going back to the Earth again. The greatest satisfaction he could have would be to inform us that we had parted from the Earth for ever.”

“I trust from my very soul,” said the count, “that his prognostications are correct.”

“The more I see of him, and the more I listen to him,” replied Servadac, “the more I become convinced that his calculations are based on a solid foundation, and will prove correct to the minutest particular.”

Ben Zoof here interrupted the conversation. “I have something on my mind,” he said.

“Something on your mind? Out with it!” said the captain.

“That telescope!” said the orderly; “it strikes me that that telescope which the old professor keeps pointed up at yonder big sun is bringing it down straight upon us.”

The captain laughed heartily.

“Laugh, captain, if you like; but I feel disposed to…”

“To what?”

“To demolish that evil instrument!”

“Break the telescope, Ben Zoof?”

“Into a million pieces.”

“Ben Zoof,” said Servadac, his laughter exchanged for a look of stern displeasure, “touch that telescope, and you shall swing for it!”

The orderly looked astonished.

“I am governor here,” said Servadac.

Ben Zoof knew what his master meant, and to him his master’s wish was law.

The interval between the comet and Jupiter was, by the 1st of October, reduced to 43,000,000 miles. The belts all parallel to Jupiter’s equator were very distinct in their markings. Those immediately north and south of the equator were of a dusky hue; those toward the poles were alternately dark and light; the intervening spaces of the planet’s superficies, between edge and edge, being intensely bright. The belts themselves were occasionally broken by spots, which the records of astronomy describe as varying both in form and in extent.

The physiology of belts and spots alike was beyond the astronomer’s power to ascertain; and even if he should be destined once again to take his place in an astronomical congress on the Earth, he would be just as incapable as ever of determining whether or no they owed their existence to the external accumulation of vapour, or to some internal agency. It would not be Professor Rosette’s lot to enlighten his brother savants to any great degree as to the mysteries that are associated with this, which must ever rank as one of the most magnificent amongst the heavenly orbs.

As the comet approached the critical point of its career it cannot be denied that there was an unacknowledged consciousness of alarm. Mutually reserved, though ever courteous, the count and the captain were secretly drawn together by the prospect of a common danger; and as their return to the Earth appeared to them to become more and more dubious, they abandoned their views of narrow isolation, and tried to embrace the wider philosophy that acknowledges the credibility of a habitable universe.

But no philosophy could be proof against the common instincts of their humanity; their hearts, their hopes, were set upon their natural home; no speculation, no science, no experience, could induce them to give up their fond and sanguine anticipation that once again they were to come in contact with the Earth.

“Only let us escape Jupiter,” said Lieutenant Procope, repeatedly, “and we are free from anxiety.”

“But would not Saturn lie ahead?” asked Servadac and the count in one breath.

“No!” said Procope; “the orbit of Saturn is remote, and does not come athwart our path. Jupiter is our sole hindrance. Of Jupiter we must say, as William Tell said, ‘Once through the ominous pass and all is well.’”

The 15th of October came, the date of the nearest approximation of the comet to the planet. They were only 31,000,000 miles apart. What would now transpire? Would Gallia be diverted from its proper way? or would it hold the course that the astronomer had predicted?

Early next morning the captain ventured to take the count and the lieutenant up to the observatory. The professor was in the worst of tempers.

That was enough. It was enough, without a word, to indicate the course which events had taken. The comet was pursuing an unaltered way.

The astronomer, correct in his prognostications, ought to have been the most proud and contented of philosophers; his pride and contentment were both overshadowed by the certainty that the career of his comet was destined to be so transient, and that it must inevitably once again come into collision with the Earth.

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Translation Copyright © 2007 Adam Roberts
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:44 $