On Nebulous Stars, Properly So Called

Author: William Herschel

On Nebulous Stars, Properly So Called

William Herschel

In one of his late examinations of a space in the heavens, which he had not reviewed before, Dr. H. discovered a star of about the eighth magnitude, surrounded with a faintly luminous atmosphere, of a considerable extent. The phenomenon was so striking that he could not help reflecting on the circumstance that attended it, which appeared to be of a very instructive nature, and such as might lead to inferences which will throw a considerable light on some points relating to the construction of the heavens.

Cloudy or nebulous stars have been mentioned by several astronomers; but this name ought not to be applied to the objects which they have pointed out as such; for, on examination, they proved to be either mere clusters of stars, plainly to be distinguished with his large instruments, or such nebulous appearances as might be reasonably supposed to be occasioned by a multitude of stars at a vast distance. The milky way itself consists entirely of stars, and by imperceptible degrees he was led on from most evident congeries of stars to other groups in which the lucid points were smaller, but still very plainly to be seen; and from them to such wherein they could but barely be suspected, till he arrived at last to spots in which no trace of a star was to be discerned. But then the gradations to these later were by such well-connected steps as left no room for doubt but that all these phenomena were equally occasioned by stars, variously dispersed in the immense expanse of the universe.

When Dr. H. pursued these researches, he was in the situation of a natural philosopher who follows the various species of animals and insects from the height of their perfection down to the lowest ebb of life; when, arriving at the vegetable kingdom, he can scarcely point out to us the precise boundary where the animal ceases and the plant begins; and may even go so far as to suspect them not to be essentially different. But recollecting himself, he compares, for instance, one of the human species to a tree, and all doubt of the subject vanishes before him. In the same manner we pass through gentle steps from a coarse cluster of stars, such as the Pleiades, the Praeserpe, the milky way, the cluster in the Crab, the nebula in Hercules, that near the preceding hip of Bootis, the 17th, 38th, 41st of the 7th class of his catalogues, the 10th, 20th, 35th of the 6th class, the 33d, 48th, 213th of the 1st, the 12th, 150th, 756th of the 2d, and the 18th, 140th, 725th of the 3d, without any hesitation, till we find ourselves brought to an object such as the nebula in Orion, where we are still inclined to remain in the once adopted idea, of stars exceedingly remote, and inconceivably crowded, as being the occasion of that remarkable appearance. It seems, therefore, to require a more dissimilar object to set us right again. A glance like that of the naturalist, who casts his eye from the perfect animal to the perfect vegetable, is wanting to remove the veil from the mind of the astronomer. The object mentioned above is the phenomenon that was wanting for this purpose. View, for instance, the 19th cluster of the 6th class, and afterwards cast your eye on this cloudy star, and the result will be no less decisive than that of the naturalist alluded to. Our judgment will be, that the nebulosity about the star is not of a starry nature.

But that we may not be too precipitate in these new decisions, let us enter more at large into the various grounds which induced us formerly to surmise, that every visible object, in the extended and distant heavens, was of the starry kind, and collate them with those which now offer themselves for the contrary opinion. It has been observed, on a former occasion, that all the smaller parts of other great systems, such as the planets, their rings and satellites, the comets, and such other bodies of the like nature as may belong to them, can never be perceived by us, on account of the faintness of light reflected from small opaque objects: in the present remarks, therefore, all these are to be entirely set aside.

A well connected series of objects, such as mentioned above, has led us to infer that all nebulae consist of stars. This being admitted, we were authorized to extend our analogical way of reasoning a little further. Many of the nebulae had no other appearance than that whitish cloudiness, on the blue ground on which they seemed to be projected; and why the same cause should not be assigned to explain the most extensive nebulosities, as well as those that amounted only to a few minutes of a degree in size, did not appear. It could not be inconsistent to call up a telescopic milky way, at an immense distance, to account for such a phenomenon; and if any part of the nebulosity seemed detached from the rest, or contained a visible star or two, the probability of seeing a few near stars, apparently scattered over the far distant regions of myriads of sidereal collections, rendered nebulous by their distance, would also clear up these singularities.

In order to be more easily understood in his remarks on the comparative disposition of the heavenly bodies, Dr. H. mentions some of the particulars which introduced the ideas of connection and disjunction: for these, being properly rounded on an examination of objects that may be reviewed at any time, will be of considerable importance to the validity of what we may advance with regard to the lately discovered nebulous stars. On June 27, 1786, he saw a beautiful cluster of very small stars of various sizes, about 15’ in diameter, and very rich of stars. On viewing this object, it is impossible to withhold our assent to the idea which occurs, that these stars are connected so far with one another as to be gathered together, within a certain space, of little extent when compared to the vast expanse of the heavens. As this phenomenon has been repeatedly seen in a thousand cases, Dr. H. thinks he may justly lay great stress on the idea of such stars being connected. On September 9, 1779, he discovered a very small star near e Bootis. The question here occurring, whether it had any connection with e or not, was [p.340] determined in the negative; for, considering the number of stars scattered in a variety of places, it is very far from being uncommon, that a star at a great distance should happen to be nearly in a line drawn from the sun through e, and thus constitute the observed double star. September 7, 1782, when Dr. H. first saw the planetary nebula near v Aquarii, he pronounced it to be a system whose parts were connected together. Without entering into any kind of calculation, it is evident, that a certain degree of light within a very small space, joined to the particular shape this object presents to us, which is nearly round, and even in its deviation consistent with regularity, being a little elliptical, ought naturally to give us the idea of a conjunction in the things that produce it. And a considerable addition to this argument may be derived from a repetition of the same phenomenon, in nine or ten more of a similar construction.

When Dr. H. examined the cluster of stars, following the head of the Great Dog, he found on March 19, 1786, that there was within this cluster a round, resolvable nebula, of about 2’ in diameter, and nearly an equal degree of light throughout. Here, considering that the cluster was free from nebulosity in other parts, and that many such clusters, as well as such nebulae, exist in divers parts of the heavens, it seemed very probable that the nebula was unconnected with the cluster; and that a similar reason would as easily account for this appearance as it had resolved the phenomenon of the double star near e Bootis; that is, a casual situation of our sun and the two other objects nearly in a line. And though it may be rather more remarkable, that this should happen with two compound systems, which are not by far so numerous as single stars, we have, to make up for this singularity, a much larger space in which it may take place, the cluster being of a very considerable extent.

On February 15, 1786, Dr. H. discovered that one of his planetary nebulae had a spot in the centre, which was more luminous than the rest, and with long attention, a very bright, round, well-defined centre became visible. He remained not a single moment in doubt, but that the bright centre was connected with the rest of the apparent disc. October 6, 1785, he found a very bright, round nebula, of about 1 1/2’ in diameter. It has a large, bright nucleus in the middle, which is undoubtedly connected with the luminous parts about it. And though we must confess, that if this phenomenon, and many more of the same nature, recorded in the catalogues of nebulae, consist of clustering stars, we find ourselves involved in some difficulty to account for the extraordinary condensation of them about the centre; yet the idea of a connection between the outward parts and these very condensed ones within, is by no means lessened on that account.

There is a telescopic milky way, which Dr. H. has traced out in the heavens in many sweeps made from the year 1783 to 1789. It takes up a space of more than 60 square degrees of the heavens, and there are thousands of stars scattered over it: among others, four that form a trapezium, and are situated in the well known nebula of Orion, which is included in the above extent. All these stars, as well as the four mentioned, he takes to be entirely unconnected with the nebulosity which involves them in appearance. Among them is also d Orionis, a cloudy star, improperly so called by former astronomers; but it does not seem to be connected with the milkiness any more than the rest.

Dr. H. now comes to some other phenomena, that, from their singularity, merit undoubtedly a very full discussion. Among the reasons which induced us to embrace the opinion, that all very faint milky nebulosity ought to be ascribed to an assemblage of stars is, that we could not easily assign any other cause of sufficient importance for such luminous appearances, to reach us at the immense distance we must suppose ourselves to be from them. But if an argument of considerable force should now be brought forward, to show the existence of luminous matter, in a state of modification very different from the construction of a Sun or star, all objections, drawn from our incapacity of accounting for new phenomena on old principles, he thinks, will lose their validity.

Hitherto Dr. H. has been showing, by various instances in objects whose places are given, in what manner we may form ideas of connection, and its contrary, by an attentive inspection of them only; he now relates a series of observations, with remarks on them as they are delivered, from which he afterwards draws a few simple conclusions, that seem to be of considerable importance.

October 16, 1784. A star of about the ninth magnitude, surrounded by a milky nebulosity, or chevelure, of about 3’ in diameter. The nebulosity is very faint, and a little extended or elliptical, the extent being not far from the meridian, or a little from north preceding to south following. The chevelure involves a small star, which is about 1 1/2’ north of the cloudy star; other stars of equal magnitude are perfectly free from this appearance. (R. A. 5h 57m 4s. P.D. 96° 22’). His present judgment concerning this remarkable object is, that the nebulosity belongs to the star which is situated in its centre. The small one, on the contrary, which is mentioned as involved, being one of many that are profusely scattered over this rich neighbourhood, he supposes to be quite unconnected with this phenomenon. A circle of 3’ in diameter is sufficiently large to admit another small star, without any bias to the judgment he formed concerning the one in question. It must appear singular, that such an object should not have immediately suggested all the remarks contained in this paper; but about things that appear new we ought not to form opinions too hastily, and his observations on the construction of the heavens were then but entered on. In this case, therefore, it was the safest way to lay down a rule not to reason on the phenomena that might offer themselves, till he should be in possession of a sufficient stock of materials to guide his researches.

October 16, 1784. A small star of about the 11th or 12th magnitude, very faintly affected with milky nebulosity; other stars of the same magnitude were perfectly free from this appearance. Another observation mentions five or six small stars within the space of 3 or 4’, all very faintly affected in the same manner, and the nebulosity suspected to be a little stronger about each star. But a third observation rather opposes this increase of the faintly luminous appearance. (R. A. 6h 0m 33s. P. D. 96° 13’). Here the connection between the stars and the nebulosity is not so evident as to amount to conviction; for which reason we shall pass on to the next.

November 25, 1788. A star of about the 9th magnitude, surrounded with very faint milky nebulosity; other stars of the same size are perfectly free from that appearance. Less than 1’ in diameter. The star is either not round or double (a).

March 23, 1789. A bright, considerably well-defined nucleus, with a very faint, small, round chevelure (b). The connection admits of no doubt; but the object is not perhaps of the same nature with those called cloudy stars.

April 14, 1789. A considerable, bright, round nebula; having a large place in the middle of nearly an equal brightness; but less bright towards the margin (c). This seems rather to approach the planetary sort.

March 5, 1790. A pretty considerable star of the 9th or 10th magnitude, visibly affected with a very faint nebulosity of little extent, all around. A power of 300 showed the nebulosity of greater extent (d). The connection is not to be doubted.

March 19, 1790. A very bright nucleus, with a small, very faint chevelure, exactly round. In a low situation, where the chevelure could hardly be seen, this object would put on the appearance of an ill-defined, planetary nebula, of 6, 8 or 10" diameter (e).

November 13, 1790. A most singular phenomenon! A star of about the 8th magnitude, with a faint luminous atmosphere, of a circular form, and of about 3’ in diameter. The star is perfectly in the centre, and the atmosphere is so diluted, faint, and equal throughout, that there can be no surmise of its consisting of stars; nor can there be a doubt of the evident connection between the atmosphere and the star. Another star not much less in brightness, and in the same field with the above, was perfectly free from any such appearance. This last object is so decisive in every particular, Dr. H. says, that we need not hesitate to admit it as a pattern, from which we are authorised to draw the following important consequences:

Supposing the connection between the star and its surrounding nebulosity to be allowed, we argue, that one of the two following cases must necessarily be admitted: In the first place, if the nebulosity consist of stars that are very remote, which appear nebulous on account of the small angles their mutual distances subtend at the eye, by which they will not only, as it were, run into each other, but also appear extremely faint and diluted; then, what must be the enormous size of the central point, which outshines all the rest in so superlative a degree as to admit of no comparison! In the next place, if the star be no larger than common, how very small and compressed must be those other luminous points that are the occasion of the nebulosity which surrounds the central one! As, by the former supposition, the luminous central point must far exceed the standard of what we call a star, so, in the latter, the shining matter about the centre will be much too small to come under the same denomination; we therefore either have a central body which is not a star, or have a star which is involved in a shining fluid, of a nature totally unknown to us. Dr. H. can adopt no other sentiment than the latter, since the probability is certainly not for the existence of so enormous a body as would be required to shine like a star of the eighth magnitude, at a distance sufficiently great to cause a vast system of stars to put on the appearance of a very diluted milky nebulosity.

But what a field of novelty is here opened to our conceptions! A shining fluid, of a brightness sufficient to reach us from the remote regions of a star of the 8th, 9th, 10th, or 12th magnitude, and of an extent so considerable as to take up 3, 4, 5, or 6 minutes in diameter! Can we compare it to the coruscation of the electric fluid in the aurora borealis? Or to the more magnificent cone of the zodiacal light as we see it in the spring or autumn? The latter, notwithstanding Dr. H. has observed it to reach at least 90° from the sun, is yet of so little extent and brightness, as probably not to be perceived even by the inhabitants of Saturn or the Georgian planet, and must be utterly invisible at the remoteness of the nearest fixed star.

More extensive views may be derived from this proof of the existence of a shining matter. Perhaps it has been too hastily surmised that all milky nebulosity, of which there is so much in the heavens, is owing to starlight only. These nebulous stars may serve as a clue to unravel other mysterious phenomena. If the shining fluid that surrounds them is not so essentially connected with these nebulous stars, but that it can also exist without them, which seems to be sufficiently probable, and will be examined hereafter, we may with great facility explain that very extensive, telescopic nebulosity, which, as before mentioned, is expanded over more than 60° of the heavens, about the constellation of Orion; a luminous matter accounting much better for it than clustering stars at a distance. In this case we may also pretty nearly guess at its situation, which must commence somewhere about the range of the stars of the 7th magnitude, or a little farther from us, and extend unequally in some places perhaps to the regions of those of the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th. The foundation for this surmise is, that not unlikely some of the stars that happen to be situated in a more condensed part of it, or that perhaps by their own attraction draw together some quantity of this fluid greater than what they are entitled to by their situation in it, will, of course, assume the appearance of cloudy stars; and many of those named are either in this stratum of luminous matter, or very near it.

It has been said above, that in nebulous stars the existence of the shining fluid does not seem to be so essentially connected with the central points that it might not also exist without them. For this opinion we may assign several reasons. One of them is the greater resemblance of the chevelure of these stars and the diffused extensive nebulosity mentioned before, which renders it highly probable that they are of the same nature. Now, if this be admitted, the separate existence of the luminous matter, or its independence of a central star, is fully proved. We may also judge, very confidently, that the light of this shining fluid is no kind of reflection from the star in the centre; for, as we have already observed, reflected light could never reach us at the great distance we are from such objects. Besides, how impenetrable would be an atmosphere of a sufficient density to reflect so great a quantity of light! And yet we observe, that the outward parts of the chevelure are nearly as bright as those that are close to the star; so that this supposed atmosphere ought to give no obstruction to the passage of the central rays. If therefore this matter is self-luminous, it seems more fit to produce a star by its condensation than to depend on the star for its existence.

Many other diffused nebulosities, besides that about the constellation of Orion, have been observed or suspected; but some of them are probably very distant, and run far out into space. For instance, about 5m in time preceding x Cygni, Dr. H. suspects as much of it as covers near 4 square degrees; and much about the same quantity 44m preceding the 125 Tauri. A space of almost 8 square degrees, 6m preceding a Trianguli, seems to be tinged with milky nebulosity. Three minutes preceding the 46 Eridani, strong, milky nebulosity is expanded over more than 2 square degrees. Fifty-four minutes preceding the 13th Canum venaticorum, and again 48m preceding the same star, the field of view affected with whitish nebulosity throughout the whole breadth of the sweep, which was 2° 39’. Four minutes following the 57 Cygni a considerable space is filled with faint, milky nebulosity, which is pretty bright in some places, and contains the 37th nebula of the 5th class, in the brightest part of it. In the neighbourhood of the 44th Piscium, very faint nebulosity appears to be diffused over more than 9 square degrees of the heavens. Now all these phenomena, as we have already seen, will admit of a much easier explanation by a luminous fluid than by stars at an immense distance.

The nature of planetary nebulae, which has hitherto been involved in much darkness, may now be explained with some degree of satisfaction, since the uniform and very considerable brightness of their apparent disc accords remarkably well with a much condensed, luminous fluid; whereas, to suppose them to consist of clustering stars, will not so completely account for the milkiness or soft tint of their light, to produce which it would be required that the condensation of the stars should be carried to an almost inconceivable degree of accumulation. The surmise of the regeneration of stars, by means of planetary nebulae, expressed in a former paper, will become more probable, as all the luminous matter contained in one of them, when gathered together into a body of the size of a star, would have nearly such a quantity of light as we find the planetary nebulae to give. To prove this experimentally, we may view them with a telescope that does not magnify sufficiently to show their extent, by which means we shall gather all their light together, into a point, when they will be found to assume the appearance of small stars; that is, of stars at the distance of those which we call of the 8th, 9th, or 10th magnitude. Indeed this idea is greatly supported by the discovery of a well-defined, lucid point, resembling a star, in the centre of one of them; for the argument which has been used, in the case of nebulous stars, to show the probability of the existence of luminous matter, which rested on the disparity between a bright point and its surrounding shining fluid, may here be alleged with equal justice. If the point be a generating star, the further accumulation of the already much condensed, luminous matter may complete it in time.

How far the light that is perpetually emitted from millions of suns may be concerned in this shining fluid, it might be presumptious to attempt to determine; but, notwithstanding the inconceivable subtilty of the particles of light, when the number of the emitting bodies is almost infinitely great, and the time of the continual emission indefinitely long, the quantity of emitted particles may well become adequate to the constitution of a shining fluid, or luminous matter, provided a cause can be found that may retain them from flying off, or reunite them. But such a cause cannot be difficult to guess at, when we know that light is so easily reflected, refracted, inflected and deflected; and that, in the immense range of its course, it must pass through innumerable systems, where it cannot but frequently meet with many obstacles to its rectilinear progression. Not to mention the great counteraction of the united attractive force of whole sidereal systems, which must be continually exerting their power on the particles while they are endeavouring to fly off. However, we shall lay no stress on a surmise of this kind, as the means of verifying it are wanting; nor is it of any immediate consequence to us to know the origin of the luminous matter. Let it suffice, that its existence is rendered evident, by means of nebulous stars.—The Report by Herschel in the Trans. of the Royal Phil. Soc. of London.

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Chicago: William Herschel, On Nebulous Stars, Properly So Called in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, WI: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 337–346. Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ZTV9K71WWW7E9H8.

MLA: Herschel, William. On Nebulous Stars, Properly So Called, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Vol. 6, Milwaukee, WI, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 337–346. Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ZTV9K71WWW7E9H8.

Harvard: Herschel, W, On Nebulous Stars, Properly So Called. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, WI, pp.337–346. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ZTV9K71WWW7E9H8.