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August 2006

August 21
    The August 15th commemoration of the end of the war is behind us and the national high school baseball championship is coming to an end. Around this time of the year weather becomes stable and a sign of autumn is felt in the air. The sounds of cicadas seem to be somewhat quieter, but energetic singing of tsukutsukuboshi cicadas has become more pronounced.

    We were not able to see many Perseid meteors this year partly because of bright moon. The source of the Perseids is Comet Swift-Tuttle which has a 130-year orbital period. It was first thought to have a 120-year orbit and many comet hunters searched for it in the 1960s and onward. I have located 24 103a-O photographic plates used to search for the comet. We must have conducted an extensive photographic search in 1980 prior to the completion of the 60cm reflector at Geisei Observatory. Needless to say, the positions these photographs had been taken were not correct, but we used Kodak's very expensive glass plates liberally, each of which cost as much as 800 yen those days. This explains how important we thought it was to discover this comet and how extensive the search was.

    Comet Swift-Tuttle became a great naked-eye comet. As it had a large orbit, it had been visible over a long period of time. When it had not been seen for 5 years after its predicted apparition (120 years after the discovery), some astronomers began making a hasty conclusion that the comet must have already gone by. However, it is unthinkable that a bright naked-eye comet like Swift-Tuttle, visible for several months in the sky, could not be found by a large number of comet hunters searching for it. This kind of pessimistic view must have been held by people who did not observe comets. I advocated in OAA's Journal Tenkai (The Heavens) that observers should continue to look hard for it, as the comet would definitely be found. And about 10 years later than predicted, Comet Swift-Tuttle made its graceful appearance as expected and shined as the "goddess of night" for a while.

    Earlier, Comet Barnard 2 was recovered by LINEAR 100 years after its last apparition. It was very faint and small compared with Swift-Tuttle. Even if LINEAR had not caught it, however, visual searchers might have found it. This comet brightened to the 9th magnitude and was reported to have been visible to 7x50 binoculars. It was fortunate that the comet appeared 10 years later than predicted, as Geisei's 60cm reflector was completed by then and captured the image of this beautiful comet with a tail trailing behind.

August 14
    In spite of the summer heat there is a sign of autumn in the air with the opening of the national high school baseball championships and the August 15th commemoration of the end of the war. At Geisei Observatory the seasons arrive early and we can already hear the chorus of cicadas called tsukutsukuboshi. Plants look tired and lifeless suffering from the long summer heat and autumn breezes gently rustle their leaves.

    The 60cm reflector, the main telescope of Geisei Observatory, has not been operative since July because of a fatal breakdown. Goto Optical, which built this telescope, may have given up on it. However, many visitors still come and the observatory is filled with their enthusiasm for learning about the stars in spite of the summer heat.

    Minor Planet Oruki* is approaching the opposition and is located in Aquarius shining at 19th magnitude. It will become brighter, but may be impossible to see. We may have to call off the public viewing of Oruki scheduled in October.

    Back to summer-time horror stories, this is the last episode of the horror stories I have been presenting in my diary. It has been a long time since I last saw that dark shadow cast on the observatory's window at 3 am. Its identity remains a mystery. There are also scary rumors about Kappa goblin appearing around the old swamp near the observatory. Or a story about a person who jumped into the swamp to kill himself and his vengeful spirit wandering around. These stories make me shudder with horror, but they are no more than imaginary ghost stories.

    Descendents of Kappa were called "enkou" and said to have inhabited rivers in Tosa. Enko were very good swimmers and there is even a shrine dedicated to them. There is also a swimming club called "Enkou Club", of which I am a member. Enkou seem to be widely known and appear in a novel written by the well-known Tosa mystery writer Uson Morishita. About 20 years ago, the remains of a mysterious creature were found near the observatory entrance. The creature could be the master of the swamp, one of the enkou.

An illustration of a Kappa goblin found in a sake brewers storage in Kyoto

    The last incident I would like to tell you about is really incredible. It was just about 10 years ago, around the time of the Leonid meteor shower at late autumn. As usual I came to the observatory and was counting meteors intensely through the slit of the dome while conducting photographic search by the 60cm reflector. It was mid November, but cold like a winter night. I took an old overcoat off the hook on the dome wall. It had been hanging there through last winter. I put it on and put my hands in the pockets and watched the sky. While I was counting meteors, my hand in the right-hand pocket was rubbing something that felt like a piece of string. It had a smooth pleasant texture. Without paying much attention I kept rubbing it even while I got excited about a fireball flying across the sky. Even now, the mere thought of that string-like object sends shivers down my spine. Suddenly it wiggled! "Come to think of it, I haven't put any string in my pocket!" Immediately, I dragged it out of my pocket. It was a snake dangling from my right hand fingers! It must have been jolted out of hibernation. It dropped on the floor and slithered slowly toward a corner of the floor. It seemed to be a harmless blue-green snake called "aodaisho", about 50cm long. What if it was a highly venomous mamushi sanke...I shiver with this terrifying thought.

    On cloudy nights I entertain observatory visitors with the stories related to the constellations and horror stories. We also play a CD of "Oruki" sung by Junko Yano.

* Minor Planet Oruki: 48482=1992 CN discovered by Tsutomu Seki
Oruki is a word in the Tosa dialect, meaning "the importance of one's presence and reassurance of unflagging support"

August 10
A speckled band

    Among Conan Doyle's novels there is a mystery titled The Speckled Band. In 1946, immediately after the war, this novel in Juza Unno's Japanese translation was broadcast on NHK as a radio drama over several nights. The thrill and suspense of the story is deeply etched in my mind. As the story goes, a band is hanging from the ceiling right over the position where a person's face will lie. This band was apparently used to communicate with a person in the next room. At 3 am a venomous snake slithers down this band. A person bitten by the snake mumbles "a speckled band hanging from the ceiling..." before he dies. It is a terrifying story.

    I have a similar experience myself. Geisei village has been well known since old days as a habitat of mamushi venomous snakes. People fear that there live large numbers of mamushi in the mountains where Geisei is located. Although I haven't seen even a single mamushi near the observatory yet in the past 20 years, a terrifying incident occurred one night in the late summer of 1998.

    It was a muggy August night. I came to the observatory routinely, opened the door, and walked into the darkened dome. I began overnight observing using the 60cm reflector. The objective of the night's observation was to find new minor planets late at night. While operating the telescope tilted a little to the south, I noticed a shadow overhead on the ceiling of the white dome . Without paying much attention, I continued to observe for 3 hours under that shadow. I rotated the dome many times to shift the orientation of the slit. After a good amount of work had been done, I looked up before switching to observation of comets. Then I saw it! I saw a large snake glued to the dome surface with its head dangling. I not only shuddered at the thought of the snake falling on my head, but froze when I realized that I had been working under the snake all night. The snake was as long as 1.5 meters. What snake was it? It must have been waiting for a chance to get sparrows in the nest built in a narrow opening around the slit.

    In an NHK television program which featured the exploration of caves overseas, they introduced a cave where they could not find even a single bat. They thought it very strange. While investigating it, they heard "footsteps" getting closer from deep in the cave. A cameraman turned his powerful light toward that sound. The light revealed a reddish speckled snake with its jaws wide open. It was just about to jump at them.

    In my next episode I will tell you about a mystery of a snake. It is an unbelievable story and even now sends a chill down my spine whenever I remember it.
Copyright (C) 2006 Tsutomu Seki.