CCNet 125/2001 - 26 November 2001
"The elements of the strange orb were immediately calculated, and it
was at once conceded by all observers, that its path, at perihelion,
would bring it into very close proximity with the earth. There were
two or three astronomers, of secondary note, who resolutely maintained
that a contact was inevitable. I cannot very well express to you the effect
of this intelligence upon the people. For a few short days they would
not believe an assertion which their intellect, so long employed
among worldly considerations, could not in any manner grasp. But the truth
of a vitally important fact soon makes its way into the
understanding of even the most stolid. Finally, all men saw that
astronomical knowledge lied not, and they awaited the comet.... Meantime
the ordinary affairs of men were discarded, and all interests
absorbed in a growing discussion, instituted by the philosophic, in
respect to the cometary nature. Even the grossly ignorant aroused their
sluggish capacities to such considerations. The learned now gave their
intellect- their soul- to no such points as the allaying of fear, or
to the sustenance of loved theory. They sought- they panted for
right views. They groaned for perfected knowledge. Truth arose in the
purity of her strength and exceeding majesty, and the wise bowed down and
--Edgar Allan Poe, The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion
"When most of us learned about the solar system back in grade school
it was a simple place, as familiar and seemingly permanent as the block we
grew up on. There was the sun, and its family of nine planets - from
broiling Mercury out to icy Pluto. Some of us could label the sprinkling
of moons, paste a belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter,
or sketch in a handful of wandering comets, with tails blazing. And we
could be pretty sure the picture wouldn't change much before high school.
But those days are gone. Thanks to the development of more sensitive
electronic cameras, and high-speed computers, the roster of the known
solar system grows by the thousands every month."
--Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun, 25 November 2001
(1) FINDINGS IN SPACE OCCUR AT A BLUR
The Baltimore Sun, 25 November 2001
(2) WHEN SPACE ROCKS COLLIDE: VIOLENT CREATION OF ASTEROID FAMILIES
Space.com, 23 November 2001
(3) SUNLIGHT MAY NUDGE ASTEROIDS TOWARD EARTH
Andrew Yee <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(4) RE: HOW TO CONVINCE POLITICIANS
Jonathan Tate <email@example.com>
(5) SILBURY HILL
Duncan Steel <D.I.Steel@salford.ac.uk>
(6) INIDIANA LEONID METEORITES?
Calvin Shipbaugh <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Matthew Genge <M.Genge@nhm.ac.uk>
(8) AND FINALLY: THE CONVERSATION OF EIROS AND CHARMION
Edgar Allan Poe (1850)
(1) FINDINGS IN SPACE OCCUR AT A BLUR
>From The Baltimore Sun, 25 November 2001
Astronomy: Computers and digitized optics have discoveries occurring faster
than they can be agreed upon.
By Frank D. Roylance
When most of us learned about the solar system back in grade school it was a
simple place, as familiar and seemingly permanent as the block we grew up
There was the sun, and its family of nine planets - from broiling Mercury
out to icy Pluto. Some of us could label the sprinkling of moons, paste a
belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, or sketch in a
handful of wandering comets, with tails blazing.
And we could be pretty sure the picture wouldn't change much before high
But those days are gone.
Thanks to the development of more sensitive electronic cameras, and
high-speed computers, the roster of the known solar system grows by the
thousands every month.
"Business is certainly booming," said Brian Marsden. His business, as
director of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, in
Cambridge, Mass., is to verify and catalog all the new discoveries as they
These new finds include thousands of comets and asteroids, a lengthening
list of new moons, and icy new worlds orbiting in the dim, remote realm
Astronomers, in their efforts to impose order, have assigned their
discoveries to a growing, and increasingly bewildering, list of at least 36
celestial tribes and sub-tribes.
Closest to Earth are the Atens, Apollos and Amors, classes of asteroids that
cross or approach Earth's path. They are also frequently referred to as
Near-Earth Asteroids or Potentially Hazardous Asteroids. (Since 1991, five
have zipped past Earth at distances closer than the moon.)
Between Mars and Jupiter there are the Hungarias, Floras, Phocaeas and at
least 17 other classes of asteroids.
Past Jupiter are the Trojans, Centaurs, Cubewanos, Plutinos and Scattered
Disk Objects. Many cruise in the icy "Kuiper Belt," or "Trans-Neptunian
Belt" beyond Neptune, where Pluto is king, and the distinctions between
comets and asteroids blur.
Some categories are purely theoretical.
'Overdone it a little'
Vulcanoids, Apoheles and Arjunas, for example, are clans of asteroids that
orbit close to the sun - some inside Mercury's path, none moving beyond
Earth. Except that not a single representative has ever been confirmed.
"I think we've overdone it a little," Marsden said. There have been calls
for a convention to clean up the much-debated mess, he said, but "it never
seems to get done. I don't know whether we'd even get agreement."
Who has time? The discoveries are relentless.
In the 2000 edition of Peterson's Stars and Planets field guide, Jupiter was
listed as having 16 moons. In January, astronomers at the University of
Hawaii reported finding 11 more. All appear to be captured asteroids,
ranging in size up to about 5 miles in diameter.
Last year's Peterson's also counted 18 moons for Saturn, and 18 for Uranus.
But astronomers have since discovered four more moons orbiting Saturn, and
three more around Uranus - none bigger than 100 miles in diameter.
"It used to be, a few decades ago, we'd expect to find a half-dozen a year,"
Marsden said. "Now we're finding maybe a half-dozen a month."
Professional astronomers and amateurs alike are finding them regularly in
the dark night sky. And since the mid-1990s, NASA's Solar and Heliospheric
Observatory - a satellite that stares unblinkingly toward the sun - has
serendipitously spotted more than 300 new "sungrazing" comets in the daytime
sky, 70 of them this year alone.
Two years ago the total number of officially cataloged comets was 1,036.
Today the number is approaching 1,400, Marsden says.
But it is the asteroid hunters who have truly struck it rich.
The first asteroid, Ceres, was discovered on the night of Jan. 1, 1801. By
1938, the count had reached about 1,500.
"There was a resolution to the IAU 40 years ago asking, 'Why don't we stop
cataloguing when we get to 3,000?'" Marsden said.
Instead, the search accelerated, driven by growing interest in what the
movement and makeup of asteroids might tell science about the birth of the
solar system, and by worry about a potential civilization-ending collision
By the start of 1999, the count of asteroids that have been given official
numbers had reached 10,000. It reached 20,000 by the start of this year.
This month, it topped 30,700.
Data on new observations pour into Marsden's office at a rate of 16,000 a
Most turn out to be new sightings of old objects. But about 1,000 a month
seem novel enough to get an official number. If the orbits hold up in
subsequent observations, they'll eventually get names.
More than three-quarters of the discoveries have been made by the Lincoln
Near Earth Asteroid Research project. But amateurs contribute, too.
And still that's not all.
In 1977, Charles Kowal, an astronomer at Mount Palomar in California,
spotted a peculiar new object. It looked like an asteroid, but it was
crossing planetary orbits between Jupiter and Neptune like a comet. And in
1988, it developed a tail as ices began to warm and escape from its surface.
It was dubbed Chiron, the first of a new class of ice-rich objects called
Centaurs (after the half-man, half-horse beings of Greek mythology). Their
number has since exceeded 70.
And in 1992, University of Hawaii astronomers found an ice giant, hundreds
of miles across, out beyond Neptune, 38 times Earth's distance from the sun.
It was the first of yet another new celestial family called "Trans-Neptunian
Objects." (Some have argued for the inclusion of Pluto and its moon in this
Their number is nearing 500, Marsden said. The Lowell Observatory recently
reported finding the largest yet, a behemoth called 2001 KX76. More are
'A mathematical problem'
This golden age of discovery in the solar system has been fueled by a
technological revolution in astrophotography.
All astronomers search for asteroids by taking a timed series of telescopic
pictures of a likely region of the night sky. Then they compare the
pictures, looking for dots of light that seem to have moved relative to the
"fixed" stars in the background.
The process once demanded long exposures, slow darkroom work and tedious,
manual examination of the results. But no more.
Photographic plates have been replaced by "charge coupled devices" - CCDs.
These are electronic light detectors like those in digital cameras. They're
fast and sensitive, shortening exposure times from 20 minutes or more to
just 10 seconds. And they're cheap enough for amateurs.
"Now, CCD images are commonplace," Marsden said. "We've had amateurs make
1,000 observations in one night" - seeing as many as 400 separate objects.
And some are new discoveries.
The process is further accelerated by specialized software that has
automated the search for new objects on the CCD images.
Regular computer upgrades have also been critical to the Minor Planet
Center's race to keep up - to calculate the observed orbits, compare them
with known asteroids, and confirm the discoveries.
"It's quite a mathematical problem," Marsden said.
Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun
(2) WHEN SPACE ROCKS COLLIDE: VIOLENT CREATION OF ASTEROID FAMILIES
>From Space.com, 23 November 2001
By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
In this week's journal Science, three new studies explain the violent family
history of asteroids, give a new estimate for how many space rocks exist in
potentially dangerous orbits near Earth, and paint a more precise picture of
where these asteroids roam.
Asteroids known to orbit the Sun in family groups are likely the result of
tremendous collisions between two rocks, both larger than Rhode Island,
according to a new computer simulation. A huge shock wave reverberates
through the asteroids and splinters them into myriad fragments, but gravity
gathers some of the pieces together again to create somewhat loosely bound
These individual asteroids then continue orbiting the Sun, but now instead
of two asteroids there are many.
New Near-Earth Asteroid estimate
In a separate study, MIT researcher Joseph S. Stuart developed yet another
estimate for the number of asteroids 1-kilometer (0.62 miles) or larger
orbiting the Sun roughly at the same distance as Earth. These Near-Earth
Asteroids, or NEAs as astronomers call them, are a top priority for
discovery because they stand the greatest chance of colliding with Earth
sometime in the future.
None of the roughly 500 known NEAs is on a course that will hit Earth
anytime in the next century. But scientists are unsure exactly how many more
NEAs are out there. Most estimates for the total have ranged from 900 to
1,200 and have been revised many times in recent years.
The new study, based on data from the highly successful Lincoln Near-Earth
Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project at MIT, puts the count at between 1,137
and 1,397. It is based on a larger sample of known NEAs compared with
Donald Yeomans, an asteroid expert at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said
the MIT estimate is the result of new data and methods and is roughly in
line with other recent estimates, though slightly higher than some. The most
widely accepted estimate in recent months has been about 1,000, plus or
minus 200 or 300, he said. Other studies have put the count as high as
Where they roam
Stuart also looked into the locations of NEAs. Earth, the other planets and
most asteroids orbit the Sun roughly in the same imaginary plane in space,
called the ecliptic. But Stuart found that more NEAs are farther above or
below this plane than previously thought. This greater orbital
"inclination," as it is called, may be good news for Earth.
"NEAs with higher inclinations are less likely to impact the Earth," Stuart
Yeomans said the result reaffirms the need to continue looking for asteroids
in the entire sky, as the LINEAR search program does.
"If all you want to do is discover the most NEAs, you look in the ecliptic,"
Yeomans said. "But if everyone does that, you miss some that are in higher
Colliding space rocks
Farther out in space, well beyond NEAs, some 20 families of asteroids are
known to orbit the Sun in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter.
Millions of asteroids populate the main belt, leftovers of the solar
system's formation more than 4 billion years ago.
The study of how asteroids might collide and create family groups was led by
Patrick Michel and a colleague at Tanga at Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur in
Michel explained his group's computer simulation:
Travelling at 11,180 mph (5 km/s), an asteroid 30 miles (48 km) in diameter
slams into another that is 177 miles (284 km) wide. A shock wave sends
cracks propagating through the larger asteroid. Within minutes, it shatters
into 100,000 pieces, none larger than 2 miles (3 km).
The bits are strewn through space, some heading in slightly new directions
at slightly different speeds. But the mutual gravity of the hoard of giant
boulders begins pulling some back together, a process that lasts roughly two
The simulation could explain the developmental histories of many asteroids,
which researchers believe are loosely bound "rubble piles" rather than solid
"Since a big majority of real asteroids with sizes above a few kilometers
should already have suffered a collision during their lifetime, our result
suggests that many should be rubble piles," Michel told SPACE.com.
And because many of the rocks got back together after being blown apart,
Michel said the study should help scientists better understand the collision
energy required to divert asteroids onto a potentially threatening
trajectory to the Earth. Researchers suspect that many NEAs may have begun
their lives in the asteroid belt and been bumped inward by collisions.
Onward to Earth
In fact, a third study provides further clues as to how some main-belt
asteroids might be bumped into near-Earth orbits.
William F. Bottke, Jr., of the Southwest Research Institute, led a team that
found that the smaller members of an asteroid family spread out and undergo
a change in orbital momentum caused by their re-radiation of solar energy.
This "Yarkovsky effect," as it is called, has been shown to send small rocks
to Earth but was previously thought to be ineffective at changing the orbits
of larger asteroid.
But Bottke's team found, again in computer simulations, that this Yarkovsky
effect leads some family members to the edges of gaps in the main asteroid
belt -- regions of the belt that have been swept clean by the gravitational
effects of Jupiter.
And what does Jupiter do with asteroids that enter these gaps? Sends them to
Copyright 2001, Space.com
(3) SUNLIGHT MAY NUDGE ASTEROIDS TOWARD EARTH
>From Andrew Yee <email@example.com>
Southwest Research Institute (SwRI)
For more information, contact:
Southwest Research Institute
P.O. Drawer 28510
San Antonio, Texas 78228-0510
Phone (210) 522-4630, Fax (210) 522-3547
Dr. Bill Bottke
Phone (303) 546-9687
November 22, 2001
Sunlight may nudge asteroids toward Earth
The Earth has long resided among swarms of asteroids. Many of these objects
are miles across, large enough that an impact with the Earth could present a
significant hazard to life. Researchers believe that the starting location
for these bodies is the main asteroid belt, a stable reservoir of huge,
hurtling boulders located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. An
on-going puzzle, however, is how these giant rocks escape the asteroid belt
to reach orbits bound for Earth.
A new study led by Dr. William Bottke of Southwest Research InstituteTM
(SwRI) in Boulder, Colo., suggests the ultimate solution may be much more
slow and subtle than anyone suspected. Bottke is the lead researcher on a
U.S.-Czech-French team that has shown that large asteroids are gently nudged
over hundreds of millions or even billions of years by the absorption and
re-emission of sunlight, enough so the asteroids may eventually fall into
orbital zones where the combined gravitational kicks of the planets can
force them onto Earth-crossing orbits.
The team's report, "Dynamical Spreading of Asteroid Families via the
Yarkovsky Effect," appears in the Nov. 23 edition of the journal Science.
The researchers have carefully studied asteroid families, formations of
large and small rocks believed to be the fragments of tremendous collisions
between the largest asteroids in the main asteroid belt. The rocks produced
by these collisions tend to have similar orbits, making it possible to piece
together how the family members have evolved since their formation long ago.
Computer models showing how the asteroid break-up events work are the
subject of a paper written by a team led by Patrick Michel of the
Observatoire de la Cote d'Azur in the same issue of Science. Michel's team
found that collision fragments are frequently thrown far from the impact
site, but not so far that they can reproduce the orbital distribution of
observed asteroid families. The biggest mismatches occur among the smaller
family members, which are less than 10 miles across. Many small family
members also appear to be corralled by narrow chaotic
zones known as resonances, where tiny gravitational kicks produced by nearby
planets such as Mars, Jupiter, or Saturn can push asteroids out sof the
The solution arrived at by Bottke's team explains the unusual orbits of the
smaller family members, related to a radiation effect named for Russian
engineer I.O. Yarkovsky, who first described it a century ago. Like a sunlit
sidewalk on Earth, a body spinning in space would be
expected to heat up slowly and reradiate the energy back into space. Because
radiation carries some momentum, Yarkovsky theorized that the reradiated
energy slowly propels the body like a comet spewing off gas. Bottke's team
speculates that this gentle push, if applied to small asteroid family
members for hundreds of millions or even billions of years, could move them
The team uses computer simulations to show that the Yarkovsky Effect can
indeed move small family asteroids far enough to place them on their
observed orbits. Moreover, asteroids migrating long and far enough are found
to fall into resonances capable of pushing them onto Earth-threatening
orbits. One such asteroid, which probably evolved in this fashion, is (433)
Eros, the subject of an intensive investigation by the Near-Earth Asteroid
Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft over the last several years.
Thus, for the first time, the observed orbital distribution of asteroid
families and the presence of very old asteroids near Earth can be understood
using a combination of Michel's model, which describes how families are
born, and Bottke's model, which describes how families evolve and spread out
over long timescales.
Other authors of this study were David Vokrouhlicky and Miroslav Broz of
Charles University, Czech Republic; David Nesvorny of the Southwest Research
Institute, Boulder; and Alessandro Morbidelli of the Observatoire de la Cote
d'Azur, France. NASA and the European Space
Agency funded the study.
SwRI is an independent, nonprofit, applied research and development
organization based in San Antonio, Texas, with more than 2,700 employees and
an annual research volume of more than $315 million.
Editors: Animations showing an asteroid break up and the spread of an
asteroid family are available at http://swrinews.worldpost.com/asteroids/
* LETTERS TO THE MODERATOR *
(4) RE: HOW TO CONVINCE POLITICIANS
>From Jonathan Tate <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The question of how to convince politicians of the reality of the NEO impact
hazard is one that, as you will know well, has concerned the members of
Spaceguard UK for some years. Our success in 1999/2000 in convincing the
science minister, Lord Sainsbury, to set up the government's NEO Task Force
and his subsequent acceptance of their 14 recommendations has been largely
offset by the apparent lack of action since the publication of the report
over a year ago. Officials from the BNSC have assured me that there is
significant activity in the background, and there is indeed evidence of some
discussions going on within ESA, ESO and other organisations. However,
after more than a year it would not be unreasonable to expect something more
substantial to have been announced by now.
One initiative that has been announced by the BNSC is the impending
establishment of a National NEO Information Centre. Sadly this
organisation, saddled as it will be with a contractual agreement to refrain
from commenting on government policy, will be toothless in the face of
continuing official inaction. The UK is in severe danger of presenting the
paying public with a very "Gucci" shop window, but without anything on the
shelves inside. This announcement amounts to the limited implementation of
½ of one of the 14 recommendations.
One light on the horizon is the developing "Atlas programme" - a
collaborative project involving a number of academic and business concerns
in the UK that is, once more, attempting to engage the decision makers in
NEO studies. The proposals are similar to those produced by Duncan Steel and
Mark Bailey in 1998, and those of the Spaceguard Foundation authored by
Andrea Carusi in 1999. Both of these proposals floundered on the rocks of
official indifference (though Andrea's have found limited support in
Europe). The Atlas Programme is the latest effort to breach the wall of
official indifference, and has a good chance of success if the lessons
learned by its predecessors are heeded.
It is increasingly clear that arguments for support based purely on the
science are doomed to failure. The evidence is already in, and is freely
available to anyone with the motivation to read it. We don't need any more
studies - the Task Force did all that is required. What we require now is a
groundswell of support from the public, based on verifiable data put into
the public domain by credible and qualified organisations. In addition,
robust support from the scientific community is needed. This should not be
restricted to astronomers, but should include active support from those
engaged in related fields of study. Indeed, we need not restrict the plea
for support to scientists. Historians, sociologists and disaster planning
agencies are just examples of other interested parties. But, of course, as
the employers of politicians and civil servants, it will be the support of
members of the general public that will constitute the casting vote on any
NEO programme. The new Spaceguard Centre is, in its limited fashion,
continuing the work of Spaceguard UK to promote public understanding of the
NEO hazard, and the proposed development of a countywide "Spaceguard
Network" of public and media information nodes will further enhance the
public information system.
In 1997 Sir Crispin Tickell wrote to me saying the "blitzkrieg" approach was
clearly not working, so we had to settle down to a war of attrition with
government bureaucracy. We have been engaged for over four years now, and
slow progress is being made. However, we still wait for something other
The Spaceguard Centre
(5) SILBURY HILL
>From Duncan Steel <D.I.Steel@salford.ac.uk>
A quick note on the basic concept of some upset in human affairs circa 2350
BC being linked to an extraterrestrial event.
A few years ago I suggested that the great Egyptian pyramids (erected around
the mid-3rd millennium BC) might have been built to a design mimicking the
shape of the greatly-enhanced zodiacal light that would be produced by
sunlight scattered by the dust liberated in some major
comet break-up, that dust then being dispersed over a timescale of a few
centuries. It's just a idea I think worth considering: if the zodiacal dust
cloud were truly enhanced then the apices of the triangular shapes seen just
after sunset and just before sunrise in the west and east respectively would
be connected by a bright band following the ecliptic and passing through the
gegenschein. The pyramids would then figuratively provide the "stairways to
heaven" about which the Egyptians waxed.
Many readers may not have seen the zodiacal light, and so I say: head for a
dark site in the tropics. Then you will be able to imagine why the ancients
would have been upset if it were considerably brighter still in antiquity.
In Britain, a structure with a similar profile to the pyramids is Silbury
Hill, near the Avebury stone circles in Wiltshire. It has a conical shape
and is about 40 metres high. Its origin and purpose are ongoing puzzles. I
note that a dating has now been done, from deer antler fragments found near
its summit (so that the initial construction efforts at Silbury must be
earlier), rendering a date of between 2490 and 2340 BC:
Clearly the ancients had some good reason for spending millions of hours
building Silbury, and other megalithic monuments. We need to tease out just
what it was.
(6) INIDIANA LEONID METEORITES?
>From Calvin Shipbaugh <email@example.com>
I saw your report on the Cambridge-Conference net mentioning the news claim
of possible meteorites during the recent meteor shower. Although only a good
analysis can clear up the issue, as a meteorite science hobbyist I am
skeptical for one outstanding reason. There was no
mention of fusion crust in the news articles and the shiny, flakey
description of the material sounded suspect. Meteorites typically experience
high temperatures sufficient to melt/ablate a thin outer layer which is
quite evident in new falls. Only in the most exceptional cases does there
not appear a striking crust, as with the clean green surfaces of the
Tatahouine diogenite shower of 70 years ago. That, however, was the case of
a stone breaking apart at altitudes such that time and speed did not permit
secondary fusion crust formation (in any great way, at least). The very high
speed of the Leonid shower fragments should, if any survived to ground, show
evidence for crust. Even a soft material like Pasamonte developed a good
- Calvin Shipbaugh
>From Matthew Genge <M.Genge@nhm.ac.uk>
Apparantley I don't need sub-zero temperatures to stop my brain working
properly. The ANSMET expedition can be followed at
http://www.webexpeditions.net not the address I provided on Friday.
(8) AND FINALLY: THE CONVERSATION OF EIROS AND CHARMION
by Edgar Allan Poe (1850)
I will bring fire to thee.
EIROS. Why do you call me Eiros?
CHARMION. So henceforth will you always be called. You must forget, too, my
earthly name, and speak to me as Charmion.
EIROS. This is indeed no dream!
CHARMION. Dreams are with us no more; but of these mysteries anon. I rejoice
to see you looking like-life and rational. The film of the shadow has
already passed from off your eyes. Be of heart and fear nothing. Your
allotted days of stupor have expired; and, to-morrow, I will myself induct
you into the full joys and wonders of your novel existence.
EIROS. True, I feel no stupor, none at all. The wild sickness and the
terrible darkness have left me, and I hear no longer that mad, rushing,
horrible sound, like the "voice of many waters." Yet my senses are
bewildered, Charmion, with the keenness of their perception of the new.
CHARMION. A few days will remove all this;- but I fully understand you, and
feel for you. It is now ten earthly years since I underwent what you
undergo, yet the remembrance of it hangs by me still. You have now suffered
all of pain, however, which you will suffer in Aidenn.
EIROS. In Aidenn?
CHARMION. In Aidenn.
EIROS. Oh, God!- pity me, Charmion!- I am overburthened with the majesty of
all things- of the unknown now known- of the speculative Future merged in
the august and certain Present.
CHARMION. Grapple not now with such thoughts. Tomorrow we will speak of
this. Your mind wavers, and its agitation will find relief in the exercise
of simple memories. Look not around, nor forward- but back. I am burning
with anxiety to hear the details of that stupendous event which threw you
among us. Tell me of it. Let us converse of familiar things, in the old
familiar language of the world which has so fearfully perished.
EIROS. Most fearfully, fearfully!- this is indeed no dream.
CHARMION. Dreams are no more. Was I much mourned, my Eiros?
EIROS. Mourned, Charmion?- oh deeply. To that last hour of all, there hung a
cloud of intense gloom and devout sorrow over your household.
CHARMION. And that last hour- speak of it. Remember that, beyond the naked
fact of the catastrophe itself, I know nothing. When, coming out from among
mankind, I passed into Night through the Grave- at that period, if I
remember aright, the calamity which overwhelmed you was utterly
unanticipated. But, indeed, I knew little of the speculative philosophy of
EIROS. The individual calamity was, as you say, entirely unanticipated; but
analogous misfortunes had been long a subject of discussion with
astronomers. I need scarce tell you, my friend, that, even when you left us,
men had agreed to understand those passages in the most holy writings which
speak of the final destruction of all things by fire, as having reference to
the orb of the earth alone. But in regard to the immediate agency of the
ruin, speculation had been at fault from that epoch in astronomical
knowledge in which the comets were divested of the terrors of flame. The
very moderate density of these bodies had been well established. They had
been observed to pass among the satellites of Jupiter, without bringing
about any sensible alteration either in the masses or in the orbits of these
secondary planets. We had long regarded the wanderers as vapory creations of
inconceivable tenuity, and as altogether incapable of doing injury to our
substantial globe, even in the event of contact. But contact was not in any
degree dreaded; for the elements of all the comets were accurately known.
That among them we should look for the agency of the threatened fiery
destruction had been for many years considered an inadmissible idea. But
wonders and wild fancies had been, of late days, strangely rife among
mankind; and although it was only with a few of the ignorant that actual
apprehension prevailed, upon the announcement by astronomers of a new comet,
yet this announcement was generally received with I know not what of
agitation and mistrust.
The elements of the strange orb were immediately calculated, and it was at
once conceded by all observers, that its path, at perihelion, would bring it
into very close proximity with the earth. There were two or three
astronomers, of secondary note, who resolutely maintained that a contact was
inevitable. I cannot very well express to you the effect of this
intelligence upon the people. For a few short days they would not believe an
assertion which their intellect, so long employed among worldly
considerations, could not in any manner grasp. But the truth of a vitally
important fact soon makes its way into the understanding of even the most
stolid. Finally, all men saw that astronomical knowledge lied not, and they
awaited the comet. Its approach was not, at first, seemingly rapid; nor was
its appearance of very unusual character. It was of a dull red, and had
little perceptible train. For seven or eight days we saw no material
increase in its apparent diameter, and but a partial alteration in its
color. Meantime the ordinary affairs of men were discarded, and all
interests absorbed in a growing discussion, instituted by the philosophic,
in respect to the cometary nature. Even the grossly ignorant aroused their
sluggish capacities to such considerations. The learned now gave their
intellect- their soul- to no such points as the allaying of fear, or to the
sustenance of loved theory. They sought- they panted for right views. They
groaned for perfected knowledge. Truth arose in the purity of her strength
and exceeding majesty, and the wise bowed down and adored.
That material injury to our globe or to its inhabitants would result from
the apprehended contact, was an opinion which hourly lost ground among the
wise; and the wise were now freely permitted to rule the reason and the
fancy of the crowd. It was demonstrated, that the density of the comet's
nucleus was far less than that of our rarest gas; and the harmless passage
of a similar visitor among the satellites of Jupiter was a point strongly
insisted upon, and which served greatly to allay terror. Theologists, with
an earnestness fear-enkindled, dwelt upon the biblical prophecies, and
expounded them to the people with a directness and simplicity of which no
previous instance had been known. That the final destruction of the earth
must be brought about by the agency of fire, was urged with a spirit that
enforced everywhere conviction; and that the comets were of no fiery nature
(as all men now knew) was a truth which relieved all, in a great measure,
from the apprehension of the great calamity foretold. It is noticeable that
the popular prejudices and vulgar errors in regard to pestilences and wars-
errors which were wont to prevail upon every appearance of a comet- were now
altogether unknown. As if by some sudden convulsive exertion, reason had at
once hurled superstition from her throne. The feeblest intellect had derived
vigor from excessive interest.
What minor evils might arise from the contact were points of elaborate
question. The learned spoke of slight geological disturbances, of probable
alterations in climate, and consequently in vegetation; of possible magnetic
and electric influences. Many held that no visible or perceptible effect
would in any manner be produced. While such discussions were going on, their
subject gradually approached, growing larger in apparent diameter, and of a
more brilliant lustre. Mankind grew paler as it came. All human operations
were suspended. There was an epoch in the course of the general sentiment
when the comet had attained, at length, a size surpassing that of any
previously recorded visitation. The people now, dismissing any lingering
hope that the astronomers were wrong, experienced all the certainty of evil.
The chimerical aspect of their terror was gone. The hearts of the stoutest
of our race beat violently within their bosoms. A very few days sufficed,
however, to merge even such feelings in sentiments more unendurable. We
could no longer apply to the strange orb any accustomed thoughts. Its
historical attributes had disappeared. It oppressed us with a hideous
novelty of emotion. We saw it not as an astronomical phenomenon in the
heavens, but as an incubus upon our hearts, and a shadow upon our brains. It
had taken, with inconceivable rapidity, the character of a gigantic mantle
of rare flame, extending from horizon to horizon.
Yet a day, and men breathed with greater freedom. It was clear that we were
already within the influence of the comet; yet we lived. We even felt an
unusual elasticity of frame and vivacity of mind. The exceeding tenuity of
the object of our dread was apparent; for all heavenly objects were plainly
visible through it. Meantime, our vegetation had perceptibly altered; and we
gained faith, from this predicted circumstance, in the foresight of the
wise. A wild luxuriance of foliage, utterly unknown before, burst out upon
every vegetable thing.
Yet another day- and the evil was not altogether upon us. It was now evident
that its nucleus would first reach us. A wild change had come over all men;
and the first sense of pain was the wild signal for general lamentation and
horror. This first sense of pain lay in a rigorous constriction of the
breast and lungs, and an insufferable dryness of the skin. It could not be
denied that our atmosphere was radically affected; the conformation of this
atmosphere and the possible modifications to which it might be subjected,
were now the topics of discussion. The result of investigation sent an
electric thrill of the intensest terror through the universal heart of man.
It had been long known that the air which encircled us was a compound of
oxygen and nitrogen gases, in the proportion of twenty-one measures of
oxygen, and seventy-nine of nitrogen, in every one hundred of the
atmosphere. Oxygen, which was the principle of combustion, and the vehicle
of heat, was absolutely necessary to the support of animal life, and was the
most powerful and energetic agent in nature. Nitrogen, on the contrary, was
incapable of supporting either animal life or flame. An unnatural excess of
oxygen would result, it had been ascertained, in just such an elevation of
the animal spirits as we had latterly experienced. It was the pursuit, the
extension of the idea, which had engendered awe. What would be the result of
a total extraction of the nitrogen? A combustion irresistible,
all-devouring, omni-prevalent, immediate; the entire fulfillment, in all
their minute and terrible details, of the fiery and horror-inspiring
denunciations of the prophecies of the Holy Book.
Why need I paint, Charmion, the now disenchained frenzy of mankind? That
tenuity in the comet which had previously inspired us with hope, was now the
source of the bitterness of despair. In its impalpable gaseous character we
clearly perceived the consummation of Fate. Meantime a day again passed,
bearing away with it the last shadow of Hope. We gasped in the rapid
modification of the air. The red blood bounded tumultuously through its
strict channels. A furious delirium possessed all men; and, with arms
rigidly outstretched toward the threatening heavens, they trembled and
shrieked aloud. But the nucleus of the destroyer was now upon us; even here
in Aidenn, I shudder while I speak. Let me be brief- brief as the ruin that
overwhelmed. For a moment there was a wild lurid light alone, visiting and
penetrating all things. Then- let us bow down, Charmion, before the
excessive majesty of the great God!- then, there came a shouting and
pervading sound, as if from the mouth itself of HIM; while the whole
incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of
intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the
angels in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name. Thus ended all.
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