Vulcan (hypothetical planet)

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Vulcan was a small planet proposed to exist in an orbit between Mercury and the Sun. In an attempt to explain peculiarities of Mercury's orbit, in the 19th-century French mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier hypothesized that they were the result of another planet, which he named Vulcan. No such planet was ever found, and Mercury's orbit has now been explained by Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. The name was later given to the home planet of the Star Trek character Spock when the series was created in the 1960s.


Argument for Vulcan's existence

In 1840, François Arago, the director of the Paris Observatory, suggested to the French mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier that he work on the topic of the planet Mercury's orbital motion around the Sun. The goal of this study was to construct a model based on Sir Isaac Newton's laws of motion and gravitation. By 1843, Le Verrier published his provisional theory on the subject, which would be tested during a transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun in 1843. As it turned out, there was not a close match between Le Verrier's theory and the observations.[1]

Le Verrier renewed his work and, in 1859, published a more thorough study of Mercury's motion. This was based on a series of meridian observations of the planet as well as 14 transits. The rigor of this study meant that any differences from observation would be caused by some unknown factor. Indeed, there still remained some discrepancy.[1] During Mercury's orbit, its perihelion advances by a small amount each orbit, technically called perihelion precession. The phenomenon is predicted by classical mechanics, but the observed value differed from the predicted value by the small amount of 43 arcseconds per century.

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