From star clusters to nebulæ, only a century ago, the transition was thought to be easy and immediate. Accuracy in determining the distances of stars was just beginning to be reached, the clusters were obviously of all degrees of closeness following to the verge of irresolvability, and it was but natural to jump to the conclusion that the mystery of the nebulæ consisted in nothing but their vaster distance than that of clusters, and it was believed that all nebulæ would prove resolvable into stars whenever telescopes of sufficiently great power could be constructed.

But the development of the spectroscope soon showed the error of this hypothesis, by revealing bright lines in the nebular spectra showing that many nebulæ emit light that comes from glowing incandescent gas, not from an infinitude of small stars. In pre-telescope days nothing was known about the nebulæ. The great nebula in Andromeda, and possibly the great nebula in Orion, are alone visible to the naked eye, but as thus seen they are the merest wisps of light, the same as the larger clusters are. Galileo, Huygens and other early users of the telescope made observations of nebulæ, but long-focus telescopes were not well adapted to this work. Simon Mayer has left us the first drawing of a nebula, the Orion nebula as he saw it in 1612. The [358] vast light-gathering power of the reflectors built by Sir William Herschel first afforded glimpses of the structure of the nebulæ, and if his drawings are critically compared with modern ones, no case of motion with reference to the stars or of change in the filaments of the nebulæ themselves has been satisfactorily made out.

Only very recently has the distance of a nebula been determined, and the few that have been measured seem to indicate that the nebulæ are at distances comparable with the stars. Of all celestial objects the nebulæ fill the greatest angles, so that we are forced to conclude, with regard to the actual size of the greater nebulæ as they exist in space, that they far surpass all other objects in bulk.

Photography invaded the realm of the nebulæ in 1880, when Dr. Henry Draper secured the first photograph of the nebula of Orion. Theoretically photography ought to help greatly in the study of the nebulæ, and enable us in the lapse of centuries to ascertain the exact nature of the changes which must be going on. The differences of photographic processes, of plates, of exposure and development produce in the finished photograph vastly greater differences than any actual changes that might be going on, so that we must rely rather on optical drawings made with the telescope, or on drawings made by expert artists from photographs with many lengths of exposure on the same object.

The great work on nebulæ and star clusters recently concluded by Bigourdan of the Paris Observatory and published in five volumes received the award of the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. While D'Arrest measured about 2,000 nebulæ, and Sir John Herschel about double that number in both hemispheres, Bigourdan has measured about 7,000. His work forms an invaluable lexicon of information concerning the nebulæ.

Classification of the nebulæ is not very satisfactory, if made by their shapes alone. There are perhaps fifteen thousand nebulæ in all that have been catalogued, described, and photographed. Dreyer's new general catalogue (N.G.C.) is the best and most useful. Many of the nebulæ, especially the large ones, can only be classified as irregular nebulæ. The Orion nebula is the principal one of this class, revealing an enormous amount of complicated detail, with exceptional brilliancy of many regions and filaments. An extraordinary multiple star, Theta Orionis, occupies a very prominent position in the nebula, and photographs by Pickering have brought to light curved filaments, very faint and optically invisible, in the outlying regions which give the Orion nebula in part a spiral character. But the delicate optical wisps of this nebula are well seen, even in very small telescopes. Its spectrum yields hydrogen, helium and nitrogen. The Orion nebula is receding from the earth about eleven miles in every second. Keeler and Campbell have shown that nearly every line of the nebular spectrum is a counterpart of a prominent dark line in the spectrum of the brighter stars of the constellation of Orion. A recent investigator of the distribution of luminosity in the great nebula of Orion finds that radiations from nebulium are confined chiefly to the Huygenian region of the nebula and its immediate neighborhood.

Photography has revealed another extraordinary nebula or group of nebulæ surrounding the stars in the Pleiades, which the deft manipulation of Barnard has brought to light. All the stars and the nebula are so interrelated that they are obviously bound together physically, as the common proper motion of the stars also appears to show. Also in the constellation Cygnus, Barnard has discovered very extensive nebulosities of a delicate filmy cloudlike nature which are wholly invisible with telescopes, but very obvious on highly sensitive plates with long exposures.

Another class of these objects are the annular and elliptic nebulæ which are not very abundant. The southern constellation Grus, the crane, contains a fine one, but by far the best example is in the constellation Lyra. It is a nearly perfect ring, elliptic in figure, exceedingly faint in small telescopes; but large instruments reveal many stars within the annulus, one near the center which, although very faint to the eye, is always an easy object on the photographic plate, because it is rich in blue and violet rays. The parallax of the ring nebula in Lyra comes out only one-sixth of that of the planetary nebulæ, and the least greatest diameters of this huge continuous ring are 250 and 330 times the orbit of Neptune.

Planetary nebulæ and nebulous stars are yet another class of nebulæ, for the most part faint and small, resembling in some measure a planetary disk or a star with nebulous outline. Practically all are gaseous in composition, and have large radial velocities. Probably they are located within our own stellar system. The parallaxes of several of them have been measured by Van Maanen: one of the very small angle 0".023, which enables us to calculate the diameter of this faint but interesting object as equal to nineteen times the orbit of Neptune.

See Spiral Nebulae

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