In 1721 Halley succeeded Flamsteed as astronomer royal at the Greenwich Observatory. Although sixty- four years of age at that time his activity in astronomy continued unabated for another score of years. At Greenwich he undertook some tedious observations of the moon, and during those observations was first to detect the acceleration of mean motion. He was unable to explain this, however, and it remained for Laplace in the closing years of the century to do so, as we shall see later.
Halley's book, the Synopsis Astronomiae Cometicae, is one of the most valuable additions to astronomical literature since the time of Kepler. He was first to attempt the calculation of the orbit of a comet, having revived the ancient opinion that comets belong to the solar system, moving in eccentric orbits round the sun, and his calculation of the orbit of the comet of 1682 led him to predict correctly the return of that comet in 1758. Halley's Study of Meteors.
Like other astronomers of his time be was greatly puzzled over the well-known phenomena of shooting- stars, or meteors, making many observations himself, and examining carefully the observations of other astronomers. In 1714 he gave his views as to the origin and composition of these mysterious visitors in the earth's atmosphere. As this subject will be again referred to in a later chapter, Halley's views, representing the most advanced views of his age, are of interest.
"The theory of the air seemeth at present," he says, "to be perfectly well understood, and the differing densities thereof at all altitudes; for supposing the same air to occupy spaces reciprocally proportional to the quantity of the superior or incumbent air, I have elsewhere proved that at forty miles high the air is rarer than at the surface of the earth at three thousand times; and that the utmost height of the atmosphere, which reflects light in the Crepusculum, is not fully forty-five miles, notwithstanding which 'tis still manifest that some sort of vapors, and those in no small quantity, arise nearly to that height. An instance of this may be given in the great light the society had an account of (vide Transact. Sep., 1676) from Dr. Wallis, which was seen in very distant counties almost over all the south part of England. Of which though the doctor could not get so particular a relation as was requisite to determine the height thereof, yet from the distant places it was seen in, it could not but be very many miles high.
"So likewise that meteor which was seen in 1708, on the 31st of July, between nine and ten o'clock at night, was evidently between forty and fifty miles perpendicularly high, and as near as I can gather, over Shereness and the buoy on the Nore. For it was seen at London moving horizontally from east by north to east by south at least fifty degrees high, and at Redgrove, in Suffolk, on the Yarmouth road, about twenty miles from the east coast of England, and at least forty miles to the eastward of London, it appeared a little to the westward of the south, suppose south by west, and was seen about thirty degrees high, sliding obliquely downward. I was shown in both places the situation thereof, which was as described, but could wish some person skilled in astronomical matters bad seen it, that we might pronounce concerning its height with more certainty. Yet, as it is, we may securely conclude that it was not many more miles westerly than Redgrove, which, as I said before, is about forty miles more easterly than London. Suppose it, therefore, where perpendicular, to have been thirty-five miles east from London, and by the altitude it appeared at in London-- viz., fifty degrees, its tangent will be forty-two miles, for the height of the meteor above the surface of the earth; which also is rather of the least, because the altitude of the place shown me is rather more than less than fifty degrees; and the like may be concluded from the altitude it appeared in at Redgrove, near seventy miles distant. Though at this very great distance, it appeared to move with an incredible velocity, darting, in a very few seconds of time, for about twelve degrees of a great circle from north to south, being very bright at its first appearance; and it died away at the east of its course, leaving for some time a pale whiteness in the place, with some remains of it in the track where it had gone; but no hissing sound as it passed, or bounce of an explosion were heard.
"It may deserve the honorable society's thoughts, how so great a quantity of vapor should be raised to the top of the atmosphere, and there collected, so as upon its ascension or otherwise illumination, to give a light to a circle of above one hundred miles diameter, not much inferior to the light of the moon; so as one might see to take a pin from the ground in the otherwise dark night. 'Tis hard to conceive what sort of exhalations should rise from the earth, either by the action of the sun or subterranean heat, so as to surmount the extreme cold and rareness of the air in those upper regions: but the fact is indisputable, and therefore requires a solution."
From this much of the paper it appears that there was a general belief that this burning mass was heated vapor thrown off from the earth in some mysterious manner, yet this is unsatisfactory to Halley, for after citing various other meteors that have appeared within his knowledge, he goes on to say:
"What sort of substance it must be, that could be so impelled and ignited at the same time; there being no Vulcano or other Spiraculum of subterraneous fire in the northeast parts of the world, that we ever yet heard of, from whence it might be projected.