The heavenly bodies fall into two very distinct classes so far as their relation to our Earth is concerned; the one class, a very small one, comprises a sort of colony of which the Earth is a member. These bodies are called planets, or wanderers. There are eight of them, including the Earth, and they all circle round the sun. Their names, in the order of their distance from the sun, are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and of these Mercury, the nearest to the sun is rarely seen by the naked eye. Uranus is practically invisible, and Neptune quite so. These eight planets, together with the sun, constitute, as we have said, a sort of little colony; this colony is called the Solar System.
The second class of heavenly bodies are those which lie outside the solar system. Every one of those glittering points we see on a starlit night is at an immensely greater distance from us than is any member of the Solar System. Yet the members of this little colony of ours, judged by terrestrial standards, are at enormous distances from one another. If a shell were shot in a straight line from one side of Neptune's orbit to the other it would take five hundred years to complete its journey. Yet this distance, the greatest in the Solar System as now known (excepting the far swing of some of the comets), is insignificant compared to the distances of the stars. One of the nearest stars to the earth that we know of is Alpha Centauri, estimated to be some twenty-five million millions of miles away. Sirius, the brightest star in the firmament, is double this distance from the earth.
We must imagine the colony of planets to which we belong as a compact little family swimming in an immense void. At distances which would take our shell, not hundreds, but millions of years to traverse, we reach the stars—or rather, a star, for the distances between stars, are as great as the distance between the nearest of them and our Sun. The Earth, the planet on which we live, is a mighty globe bounded by a crust of rock many miles in thickness; the great volumes of water which we call our oceans lie in the deeper hollows of the crust. Above the surface an ocean of invisible gas, the atmosphere, rises to a height of about three hundred miles, getting thinner and thinner as it ascends.
Except when the winds rise to a high speed, we seem to live in a very tranquil world. At night, when the glare of the sun passes out of our atmosphere, the stars and planets seem to move across the heavens with a stately and solemn slowness. It was one of the first discoveries of modern astronomy that this movement is only apparent. The apparent creeping of the stars across the heavens at night is accounted for by the fact that the earth turns upon its axis once in every twenty-four hours. When we remember the size of the earth we see that this implies a prodigious speed.
In addition to this, the earth revolves around the sun at a speed of more than a thousand miles a minute. Its path around the sun, year in year out, measures about 580,000,000 miles. The earth is held close to this path by the gravitational pull of the sun, which has a mass 333,432 times that of the earth. If at any moment the sun ceased to exert this pull the earth would instantly fly off into space straight in the direction in which it was moving at the time, that is to say, at a tangent. This tendency to fly off at a tangent is continuous. It is the balance between it and the sun's pull which keeps the earth to her almost circular orbit. In the same way the seven other planets are held to their orbits.
Circling around the earth, in the same way as the earth circles around the sun, is our moon. Sometimes the moon passes directly between us and the sun, and cuts off the light from us. We then have a total or partial eclipse of the sun. At other times the earth passes directly between the sun and the moon, and causes an eclipse of the moon. The great ball of the earth naturally trails a mighty shadow across space, and the moon is "eclipsed" when it passes into this shadow.
The other seven planets, five of which have moons of their own, circle around the sun as the earth does. The sun's mass is immensely larger than that of all the planets put together, and all of them would be drawn into it and perish if they did not travel rapidly round it in gigantic orbits. The eight planets, spinning around on their axes, follow their fixed paths round the sun. The planets are secondary bodies, but they are most important, because they are the only globes in which there can be life, as we know life.
If we could be transported in some magical way to an immense distance in space above the sun, we should see our Solar System, except that the planets would be mere specks, faintly visible in the light which they receive from the sun. If we moved still farther away, trillions of miles away, the planets would fade entirely out of view, and the sun would shrink into a point of fire, a star. And here you begin to realize the nature of the universe. The sun is a star. The stars are suns. Our sun looks big simply because of its comparative nearness to us. The universe is a stupendous collection of millions of stars or suns, many of which may have planetary families like ours.