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The Solar System (2)

The spacious heavens declare

The glory of our God,

The firmament displays

His handiwork abroad;

Day unto day proclaim His might,

And night His wisdom tells to night.

We have been discussing the universe as every believer should and as all who reside in this great universe must (that it is God’s Great Universe).

We have attempted to hold the positive Scriptural line that all things are upheld by God and that all things display His glory and handiwork.

We stated in last month’s article that we would finish or at least continue our discussion of the Solar System. This we do again this month beginning our discussion with one of the more familiar bodies of the heavens, namely, the Moon.

The moon is comparatively close to the earth. The distance seems great in comparison with distances on the earth but in comparison with celestial distances, it is relatively close, it is 239,000 miles from the earth. The moon is the earth’s only satellite and affords the most beautiful spectacle and most observed spectacle in our night sky. It revolves around the earth once in 27-29 days, moving in the same direction as the earth’s rotation but at a slower rate, so that it rises about 50 minutes later each succeeding night. This causes its changing phases.

The moon is a cold body and has no light of its own, but reflects the sun’s light. It should be observed that the moon always keeps the same side toward the earth. A day on the moon is therefore about 14 days long. At new moon, the half of the moon facing the earth is dark and almost invisible since the sun’s light is then illuminating the opposite half. As the moon shifts its position eastward from night to night, it reveals an illuminated edge as a lighted crescent. This increases until half of the lighted side is seen at the first quarter. At full moon the whole of the lighted side is visible. On succeeding nights a decreasing portion of the lighted half is seen and it passes through the last quarter and on the waning crescent, to begin again in a few days as a new moon.

When we look at the moon through a telescope, we see strange markings covering the entire surface. With the telescope we can see that great areas are dotted with thousands of round pits. These look like craters of enormous inactive volcanoes. What they really are no one knows. The largest of these craters has been named Copernicus after the great Polish astronomer.

From earliest times eclipses of the sun and moon have been regarded with superstition by many. They need not be regarded with superstition but we certainly must believe with the Bible “that these things which we behold are for signs and seasons.” These eclipses are really quite natural occurrences even though they are the exception rather than the rule.

An eclipse of the moon, of lunar eclipse, occurs when the earth passes directly between the sun and the moon and casts its shadow on the moon. Lunar eclipses can occur only at full moon. An eclipse of sun, or solar eclipse, occurs when the moon, coming between the sun and the earth, casts its shadow on the earth. An eclipse may be total or partial, according to how completely the intervening body cuts off the light from the sun. A solar eclipse can occur only when we have a new moon. To observe the total eclipse of the sun is a rare and wonderful event, experienced by only a few people because the path of the complete shadow of the moon is only a few miles wide.

The orbit of the planet Mars lies next beyond the orbit of the earth and it takes 687 days, or almost 2 years, to circle the sun. This makes Mars appear to be going backward, or retrograding in the heavens. This also applies to all the planets whose orbits lie beyond the earth’s.

Around 1900, it was confidently thought by some that the planet Mars and probably other planets, too, were inhabited. A wealthy woman in Paris offered a large prize to the person who would be first to talk or communicate with people living on another planet. She made an important exception of one planet. Mars wouldn’t count. That would be, she thought, too easy! These beliefs resulted in part from the discoveries and remarks of an Italian astronomer Schiaparelli. In 1877, when Mars came about as close to the earth as it can, the astronomer saw — thought he saw — fine, straight markings on Mars’ surface. These he named “canali,” or channels. But when this word was translated into English, it was taken to mean real canals. Of course, canals must mean people able to build canals, because nature never forms “straight rivers.”

Beyond Mars there exists a gap where, by the ratio of planetary distances, another planet might be expected to exist. In its place more than 1,000 small bodies called planetoids, or asteroids, have been found. The brightest is Vesta. The smallest one can be detected only with the most sensitive instruments.

Jupiter, due to its superior brightness and the fact that it is always found near the Ecliptic, should not be difficult to identify, when visible. It is slightly brighter than Sirius, the brightest star. It is the largest of the planets, its diameter being thought to be nearly 11 times the diameter of the earth or about 88,000 miles. Its orbit lies next beyond the asteroids and it requires almost 12 years to complete its revolution around the sun. It has 9 satellites or moons.

Saturn makes a magnificent spectacle when viewed through a telescope of sufficient power to reveal its great rings clearly. It constitutes an object unlike anything else in the heavens. These rings or bands are made up of many separate particles whirling about the planet’s equatorial belt. Saturn is more likely to be confused with stars than any of the other foregoing planets.

Uranus, the seventh planet from the sun, is very difficult for the amateur to detect since its brightness compares only to a very dim star. It was discovered in 1781 by an English astronomer (Hershel), with the aid of a telescope which he made. It is known to have 4 moons.

The story of the discovery of Neptune is one of the most unusual in the whole history of astronomy. After Uranus was discovered, the astronomers studied it to determine its path around the sun. To their surprise they did not find Uranus where they had expected to find it. Therefore it must be considerably attracted by the gravitational attraction of some other body besides the sun. Two young astronomers, an Englishman, Adams, and a Frenchman, Leverrier, tried to find out why Uranus was out of its expected position. In 1846 Adams and then Leverrier arrived at practically the same conclusion though neither knew the others work. Each concluded that there must be another planet attracting it. When a search of that portion of the sky was later made with powerful telescopes, Neptune was found in almost the exact place where Adams and Leverrier had predicted it would be.

Pluto, the ninth planet from the sun, was discovered last. It was not until 1930, however, that this planet was actually proved to exist. The proof was found on a photograph taken through a telescope at Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona. There is some discussion now among astronomers as to whether Pluto is actually a planet or whether it is a satellite of Neptune. There are some astronomers who support the latter view. It doesn’t matter much but it is interesting none-the-less.

The more rare solar bodies, comets, appear as luminous bodies moving across the sky, throwing jets of light toward the sun, each having a long illuminated tail extending away from the sun. They belong to our solar system and have extremely elongated elliptical orbits, one end of which loops around the sun at comparatively small distance, the other end, in many cases, extending to unknown limits beyond the orbits of the planets. They are probably made up of smaller and larger bodies of solid material scattered throughout the nucleus. When near the sun, dust or even gaseous material is produced in them by the gravitational attraction of the sun.

Some of them appear periodically and others have been observed once and may or may not return. They are usually less bright on each return and in the end become non-luminous and cannot be seen. We are due to see a comet according to astronomical report and calculation sometime in April.

Halley’s Comet is the most famous. It was named after Halley, a British astronomer, who first computed its orbit in 1682 and predicted its return although he never saw it. Its first recorded appearance was in 87 B. C. and it returns at periods of about 77 years. Each of the 27 returns since 87 B. C. is definitely recorded in the ancient chronicles and it is evident that this comet must have been conspicuous at each return. It was seen in 1910 and will return according to prediction about 1986, D.V.

In 1843 a comet was seen that had a tail that swept across the sky from horizon to horizon.

If you watch on a clear moonless night, you may observe or, may have observed if you have watched, streaks of light in the sky. These are called “shooting stars.” They are not stars but are meteors. Meteors are thought to be small fragments of matter of various sizes which enter our atmosphere from the interplanetary spaces. They are thought to be inherently cold masses, but their surfaces become heated to incandescence by friction with our atmosphere in their rapid passage through it. If the body is small it is completely burned up. When the body is large enough a portion of it reaches the earth as a stony or metallic mass called a meteorite. One of the largest known meteorites is exhibited in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It weighs about 37 tons.

With this we conclude our discussion of the solar system and exclaim with the psalmist:

“When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? . . . .”