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Book II Jules Verne

The Professor's Experiences

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Table Of Contents: Off on a Comet

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A comet! The discovery was fatal to all further progress in the triangulation. However conscientiously the assistant on the Spanish coast might look to the kindling of the beacon, Rosette had no glances to spare for that direction; he had no eyes except for the one object of his notice, no thoughts apart from that one quarter of the firmament.

A comet! No time must be lost in calculating its elements.

Now, in order to calculate the elements of a comet, it is always deemed the safest mode of procedure to assume the orbit to be a parabola. Ordinarily, comets are conspicuous at their perihelia, as being their shortest distances from the sun, which is the focus of their orbit, and inasmuch as a parabola is but an ellipse with its axis indefinitely produced, for some short portion of its pathway the orbit may be indifferently considered either one or the other; but in this particular case the professor was right in adopting the supposition of its being parabolic.

Just as in a circle, it is necessary to know three points to determine the circumference; so in ascertaining the elements of a comet, three different positions must be observed before what astronomers call its "ephemeris" can be established.

But Professor Rosette did not content himself with three positions; taking advantage of every rift in the fog he made ten, twenty, thirty observations both in right ascension and in declination, and succeeded in working out with the most minute accuracy the five elements of the comet which was evidently advancing with astounding rapidity towards the earth.

These elements were:

l. The inclination of the plane of the cometary orbit to the plane of the ecliptic, an angle which is generally considerable, but in this case the planes were proved to coincide.

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2. The position of the ascending node, or the point where the comet crossed the terrestrial orbit.

These two elements being obtained, the position in space of the comet's orbit was determined.

3. The direction of the axis major of the orbit, which was found by calculating the longitude of the comet's perihelion.

4. The perihelion distance from the sun, which settled the precise form of the parabola.

5. The motion of the comet, as being retrograde, or, unlike the planets, from east to west.

Rosette thus found himself able to calculate the date at which the comet would reach its perihelion, and, overjoyed at his discovery, without thinking of calling it Palmyra or Rosette, after his own name, he resolved that it should be known as Gallia.

His next business was to draw up a formal report. Not only did he at once recognize that a collision with the earth was possible, but he soon foresaw that it was inevitable, and that it must happen on the night of the 31st of December; moreover, as the bodies were moving in opposite directions, the shock could hardly fail to be violent.

To say that he was elated at the prospect was far below the truth; his delight amounted almost to delirium. Anyone else would have hurried from the solitude of Formentera in sheer fright; but, without communicating a word of his startling discovery, he remained resolutely at his post. From occasional newspapers which he had received, he had learnt that fogs, dense as ever, continued to envelop both hemispheres, so that he was assured that the existence of the comet was utterly unknown elsewhere; and the ignorance of the world as to the peril that threatened it averted the panic that would have followed the publication of the facts, and left the philosopher of Formentera in sole possession of the great secret. He clung to his post with the greater persistency, because his calculations had led him to the conclusion that the comet would strike the earth somewhere to the south of Algeria, and as it had a solid nucleus, he felt sure that, as he expressed it, the effect would be "unique," and he was anxious to be in the vicinity.

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Off on a Comet
Jules Verne

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