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November 2008

November 28
Standing at the site of discovery of Comet Okabayashi-Honda

    Many decades ago, on October 1, 1940, Comet Okabayashi-Honda was discovered. On the compound of Kurashiki Observatory cosmos flowers were flourishing all over; it was the peak of the autumn season.
    At 4:30 in the morning Mr. Shigeki Okabayashi, cloaked in heavy winter clothes, set up in a corner of the yard a 75mm-aperture English-made Ottway refractor with a magnification of 30. He began searching horizontally in the direction of Leo, which was rising over the town. About half an hour later, he found the image of a comet faintly glowing white at 8th magnitude roughly at the center of the one-degree field of view. It was right in the middle of Leo's large Sickle. He had no recollection of seeing a nebula there until then. While he was beginning to confirm the motion of the object, a nearby textile factory's siren sounded to announce 5 am and the sky had grown considerably whiter.
    In those days it was an iron rule for amateurs to confirm the motion of the object before reporting the finding. He decided to do so on the following day, but unfortunately, it turned out to be rainy. The bad weather continued until October 3rd. @@
    Mr. Minoru Honda, competitor and protege of Mr. Okabayashi, was observing in the mountains of Setomura, Hiroshima prefecture. Early in the morning of October 4, Mr. Honda was searching the predawn sky with a 15cm reflector at 23x and found an 8.5-magnitude comet in Leo. Immediately, he telephoned Kurashiki Observatory asking them to verify his discovery. He was told by Mr. Okabayashi, who was then trying to confirm his finding, about his discovery made on October 1. Thus, it became the first discovery of a comet by Japanese and the comet bearing the names of two Japanese observers was born.
    Coincidentally, the Pacific War broke out in December that year and both Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Honda were drafted to be sent to battle fields. Mr. Okabayashi met a tragic death in the "Awamaru" incident (sinking of the hospital ship) in 1945, but Mr. Honda made a miraculous discovery of a comet in war-time Singapore. My book "Seeking Unknown Stars" elaborates how he made the discovery.
    After returning to Japan in 1947, he successively discovered comets under dark skies of postwar Japan and brightened the spirits of Japanese people suffering from extreme poverty. In 1950 he moved to Kurashiki Observatory and looked after it for many years.
    My visit to Kurashiki this time was 15 years after Mr. Honda's passing. I remember that I often ran into beret-wearing Mr.Honda when I was walking in the nearby Bikan Historical Quarter. I thought that even then I might bump into Mr. Honda walking with long strides on a street somewhere in town. This district was preserving the scenes from the past; the white-plastered walls of the houses reflected on Kurashiki River, black rickshaws resting at the foot of a willow tree... But the figure of Mr. Honda, the person who symbolizes Kurashiki, was no longer there. As it was a regular closing day of the observatory that day, no body was around and it was very quiet. I came across a "nekobarai" mask dedicated to scare cats off. I recall that, about 20 years ago, when I was trying to walk to the observatory from Kurashiki railroad station, I lost myself while walking along a narrow street. Suddenly, a stray cat appeared from nowhere and began walking ahead of me. I just followed it and found myself entering the observatory compound. It turned out to be a "hangout" for stray cats.
    Beside the main observatory dome there was a small white dome used to search for comets. It was built as a monument at the very place where Mr. Okabayashi discovered a comet. Right here, an extraordinary discovery drama unfolded 68 years ago. Over the city of Kurashiki there must have been awesome starry skies. Around that time I was watching the predawn northern sky from my upstairs window in Kochi. Once the night fell up on the city of 200,000 inhabitants, it turned into a world of stars. The whole sky was studded with myriad stars glittering with phosphorescent glow. Mr. Honda and Mr. Okabayashi were observing under perfect starry skies like this.

At the memorable place where Comet
Okabayashi-Honda was discovered
Copyright (C) 2008 Tsutomu Seki.