The assumption that different star types mark varying stages of cooling has the further support of modern physics, which has been unable to demonstrate any way in which the sun's radiated energy may be restored, or otherwise made perpetual, since meteoric impact has been shown to be--under existing conditions, at any rate--inadequate. In accordance with the theory of Helmholtz, the chief supply of solar energy is held to be contraction of the solar mass itself; and plainly this must have its limits. Therefore, unless some means as yet unrecognized is restoring the lost energy to the stellar bodies, each of them must gradually lose its lustre, and come to a condition of solidification, seeming sterility, and frigid darkness. In the case of our own particular star, according to the estimate of Lord Kelvin, such a culmination appears likely to occur within a period of five or six million years.
But by far the strongest support of such a forecast as this is furnished by those stellar bodies which even now appear to have cooled to the final stage of star development and ceased to shine. Of this class examples in miniature are furnished by the earth and the smaller of its companion planets. But there are larger bodies of the same type out in stellar space--veritable "dark stars"--invisible, of course, yet nowadays clearly recognized.
The opening up of this "astronomy of the invisible" is another of the great achievements of the nineteenth century, and again it is Bessel to whom the honor of discovery is due. While testing his stars for parallax; that astute observer was led to infer, from certain unexplained aberrations of motion, that various stars, Sirius himself among the number, are accompanied by invisible companions, and in 1840 he definitely predicated the existence of such "dark stars." The correctness of the inference was shown twenty years later, when Alvan Clark, Jr., the American optician, while testing a new lens, discovered the companion of Sirius, which proved thus to be faintly luminous. Since then the existence of other and quite invisible star companions has been proved incontestably, not merely by renewed telescopic observations, but by the curious testimony of the ubiquitous spectroscope.
One of the most surprising accomplishments of that instrument is the power to record the flight of a luminous object directly in the line of vision. If the luminous body approaches swiftly, its Fraunhofer lines are shifted from their normal position towards the violet end of the spectrum; if it recedes, the lines shift in the opposite direction. The actual motion of stars whose distance is unknown may be measured in this way. But in certain cases the light lines are seen to oscillate on the spectrum at regular intervals. Obviously the star sending such light is alternately approaching and receding, and the inference that it is revolving about a companion is unavoidable. From this extraordinary test the orbital distance, relative mass, and actual speed of revolution of the absolutely invisible body may be determined. Thus the spectroscope, which deals only with light, makes paradoxical excursions into the realm of the invisible. What secrets may the stars hope to conceal when questioned by an instrument of such necromantic power?
But the spectroscope is not alone in this audacious assault upon the strongholds of nature. It has a worthy companion and assistant in the photographic film, whose efficient aid has been invoked by the astronomer even more recently. Pioneer work in celestial photography was, indeed, done by Arago in France and by the elder Draper in America in 1839, but the results then achieved were only tentative, and it was not till forty years later that the method assumed really important proportions. In 1880, Dr. Henry Draper, at Hastings-on-the-Hudson, made the first successful photograph of a nebula. Soon after, Dr. David Gill, at the Cape observatory, made fine photographs of a comet, and the flecks of starlight on his plates first suggested the possibilities of this method in charting the heavens.
Since then star-charting with the film has come virtually to supersede the old method. A concerted effort is being made by astronomers in various parts of the world to make a complete chart of the heavens, and before the close of our century this work will be accomplished, some fifty or sixty millions of visible stars being placed on record with a degree of accuracy hitherto unapproachable. Moreover, other millions of stars are brought to light by the negative, which are too distant or dim to be visible with any telescopic powers yet attained--a fact which wholly discredits all previous inferences as to the limits of our sidereal system. Hence, notwithstanding the wonderful instrumental advances of the nineteenth century, knowledge of the exact form and extent of our universe seems more unattainable than it seemed a century ago.
Yet the new instruments, while leaving so much untold, have revealed some vastly important secrets of cosmic structure. In particular, they have set at rest the long-standing doubts as to the real structure and position of the mysterious nebulae--those lazy masses, only two or three of them visible to the unaided eye, which the telescope reveals in almost limitless abundance, scattered everywhere among the stars, but grouped in particular about the poles of the stellar stream or disk which we call the Milky Way.
Herschel's later view, which held that some at least of the nebulae are composed of a "shining fluid," in process of condensation to form stars, was generally accepted for almost half a century. But in 1844, when Lord Rosse's great six-foot reflector--the largest telescope ever yet constructed--was turned on the nebulae, it made this hypothesis seem very doubtful. Just as Galileo's first lens had resolved the Milky Way into stars, just as Herschel had resolved nebulae that resisted all instruments but his own, so Lord Rosse's even greater reflector resolved others that would not yield to Herschel's largest mirror. It seemed a fair inference that with sufficient power, perhaps some day to be attained, all nebulae would yield, hence that all are in reality what Herschel had at first thought them-- vastly distant "island universes," composed of aggregations of stars, comparable to our own galactic system.