The grandest of all the problems with which science has ever grappled is the relation of the stars to each other. Sir William Herschell, with his great telescope and his comprehensive mind, led the way in this sublime study, and the path which he marked out is now being pursued by able and earnest observers all over the civilized world. The results yet obtained in regard to the position of the fixed stars in relation to each other and their distances apart, are neither as positive nor a definite as our knowledge, of oar own solar system, still, within certain limits, some facts have been determined which almost overwhelm the mind with their inconceivable grandeur. First, it has been ascertained that our sun is one of an innumerable multitude of stars which are grouped together in one collection or system, separated from other stars in the universe. The general form of this stellar system, and our position in it, have been roughly determined. It is in the form of an irregular wheel, with a deep notch in one side, and with a portion of another wheel branching out from it. Our sun is situated pretty near the middle of the system, and about where the branch divides. The dimensions of this collection of stars are so vast that if expressed in miles they would require rows of figures of such confusing length as to convey no definite idea to the mind, and the plan has been adopted of stating the time which a ray of light would require to traverse them. It would take a locomotive 500 years to pass from the earth to the sun, while a ray of light makes the journey in eight minutes, and yet a ray of light moving with the same velocity, would require three years to reach the nearest fixed star ! In applying this measuring rod to our stellar system, it is fosnd that, through the thickness of the wheel the distance is such that light would occupy about 1,000 years, and through the diameter not less than 10,000 years, in making the passage ! In some directions, indeed, the system stretches away into the depths of space beyond the reach of the most powerful telescope to measure. If we pass through the inconceivable distances we have bsen considering, out beyond the boundaries of ur stellar system, we find a region of empty space, destitute of stars, at all events of those which are luminous and visible. Traversing this void space through distances which appal the mind by their immensity, we find other systems of stars probably similar to our own. And astronomers are now considering the possible relation of these several clusters to each otherwhether there is not a system of systems ! This is the most snblime problem which has ever engaged the attention of the human mind.
This article was originally published with the title "Our Stellar System" in Scientific American 3, 25new, 393-394 (December 1860)