Jump to top page

The Discovery story of Comet Seki-Lines

[My book "Seeking Unknown Stars" in 1993.]    Comet Seki-Lines (1962 C1) was discovered on February 4, 1962, my second comet discovery. This is my account of the moment of discovery, anxiety before and after reporting the discovery, and a sense of relief and achievement after the confirmation.
    (The story was previously published in my book "Seeking Unknown Stars" in 1993.)

Part One: A comet or just an illusion?

    Late at night of February 4, 1962, I was slowly moving my home-built telescope with my eye fixed on the southern horizon.

    February 4 is the first day of spring, according to the traditional calendar, but the cold wave seemed to have no intention to relax its tight grip on us. The stars in the sky looked like numerous broken pieces of ice twinkling and shimmering furiously as if roughed up by strong wintry streams of air.

    Damp frosty air wrapped my whole body up tightly. Pains on my hands and feet had worsened progressively with the passing of time. I tried to ignore the cold by intensely concentrating on the numerous stars moving quietly across the eyepiece field. At times, however, the freezing air challenged my determination. It was a tug-of-war between the cold and strength of my will.

    Almost 30 minutes had passed since I began my search. Night dew started to run down the side of the white telescope tube. "I must hold on no matter what," I sternly told myself, while gazing at hundreds of twinkling stars flowing silently across the field. "I've never thought there is a cluster here." I was excited by this little discovery. When I was just about to move the scope to the next field, I caught the faint fuzzy glow of an unusual object. "A comet? Could be a new comet!" I shouted in my mind. My heart began pounding. I no longer felt the cold or heard a sound. My eye stared at the glow. My motionless hands gripped the telescope's handle tightly. It was an extremely faint object. Hundreds of tiny stars were flickering in the circular eyepiece field as if each one of them were spirited with life. And one of them appeared blurred as if glowing through a veil of cloud.

    I held the object in the center of the field and fixed my eye on it trying to detect any movement. Needless to say, there was no way to detect any motion of the object over such a short period of time. I was mesmerized by twinkling stars shining against the depth of darkness; how beautiful and fascinating they were! I forgot myself and the passing of time. I didn't know how long it was before I was brought back to reality by one nagging question. "Isn't this object I am looking at now a known object already plotted on star charts?" But it was definitely not an ordinary star, because it wasn't a pinpoint of light but clearly a hazy smudge. "If it is a hazy smudge, isn't it a known cluster or nebula?" I quickly took out the star atlas on hand and began checking it with a flashlight.

    The star charts in the atlas show all the stars visible to the naked eye as well as star clusters and nebulae which would be easily mistaken for comets. They are very useful for determining the nature of an object upon its discovery. I carefully checked the position of the object on one of the charts. To my surprise, the object I had thought to be a new object was clearly marked on the chart! I couldn't believe my eyes. "It can't be!" That mysterious glow with the fuzzy outline is characteristic of the comet. This absolute confidence was built upon many years of my comet search and devotion to observing. Again I looked at the chart hard. The symbol lit by the soft light of the flashlight was undoubtedly the one of a known open cluster. "So, it isn't a comet after all...." I was disheartened. Because I got excited and nervous anticipating a discovery, I was hugely disappointed. This chart was published in America lately and quite reliable. "It's amazing some stars really look like a comet." I began climbing down the ladder from the observing deck in the depth of night with some lingering excitement. Around the same time, something was happening in Arizona halfway around the world.

    Finishing the night's search, I returned to my room to write the observation results. It was already past 11.00 pm. I entered the time of observation, weather, sky transparency, seeing and so on. All the while the image of that unusual object was flickering in my mind. Norton's Star Atlas tells you in black and white it is not a comet. Then why does it bother me like this? Just in case...I took out the atlas and started checking it again under bright room light. While turning the pages of the atlas, I noticed the object's position was unexpectedly low in the southern sky.

    The object in question was right on the line for declination -38 degrees in the southern sky. I checked again and again the position on the chart where it was spotted, but I was only able to see the symbol of an open cluster there. In fact, it was so clearly marked that I even felt as if it were glaring back at me with contempt.

    After all it was not a new object; it was a known object with its position well established. I gave up and closed the atlas.

    Many of the clusters and nebulae are not visible to the naked eye, but through telescopes they are very fuzzy and look very much like comets. Therefore, it is difficult to determine their true nature just by having a glance. You have to check the object on a detailed star chart or wait until the following day to see if it has moved.

    The object I spotted tonight was marked as a cluster on the chart, but I had never encountered an object that resembled a comet so much even in my long observing experience. No matter how hard I tried to project the image of a comet on to the chart, the chart defied it. It was unthinkable that the chart was wrong. The harder I tried to think, the more I got confused.

    After recording the night's observations, I took a late-night bath. I listened to the sound of the howling wind outside while immersing myself in hot water. Although by calendar the spring was supposed to have arrived, it seemed to be still far away. There was no sign of the cold wave abating. It was really a freezing night. I reflected on what happened tonight.

    It was a beautiful starry night. I moved the telescope skirting the southern
horizon. I was staring at numerous stars drifting across the field of view, while moving the telescope horizontally. It was no different from my usual searching procedure. Then, a beautiful cluster flowed into the field, a cluster...

Something caught my attention and I stood up in the tub.

"That's right! That comet-like object! It followed the cluster into the field." I got out of the bath and hurriedly put on warm clothes. I grabbed the atlas and ran up the ladder back to my observing deck in the court yard. I quickly took the plastic sheet off the telescope. Cold dew drops had already been frozen on the sheet and made an awful crackling noise. It was close to midnight. Orion, which had been blazing in the southern sky until a little while ago, was now beginning to sink in the western sky. "I have to find that cluster!"

    The telescope began scanning the sky along the midnight southern horizon. The question is that cluster. Right before I sighted that fuzzy object, that cluster, a concentration of dozens of faint stars, had entered the field of view. What was marked in Norton's Atlas was that cluster, wasn't it? Then, there could have been another object quite close to the cluster, but not shown on the chart. If this was the case, it would be an extremely unusual, extraordinary occurrence.

    I tried to calm my pounding heart and concentrated on searching for that faint fuzzy object, but it wasn't easy. It was an exercise as difficult as picking out one particular pinpoint of light in this vast sky. I was trying to find the object with its unusual appearance among millions of stars visible to the telescope. It was just like looking for a tiny jewel lost in a desert, an almost impossible task.

    While I was wandering in the infinite universe, a memory of my serious error began to haunt me. It had happened before the dawn of one cold early winter day. I found a comet-like object in a corner of Bootes, but easily lost it owing to an error in the star atlas and my inexperience. By the time I realized my blunder, this new object had gone out of our sight forever without being spotted by anybody else in the world. My efforts were completely wasted.

    Was I repeating the same mistake? I became more and more desperate.

Part Two: A Lost Image

    That object was definitely a new comet. My intuition was right. It was built upon more than 10 years of my devotion to comet search chasing the image of a comet. In the past a brief lapse of concentration resulted in the loss of a comet rendering my hard work wasted. My little error of judgment allowed the big fish to escape. This time, if it isn't caught in time, the comet may become lost forever in space without being seen again by anybody.

    "I can't let it go. I have to catch it."
    I kept gazing at the sky close to the southern horizon. Zeta Pup was visible to the naked eye, shining low on distant Washio Mountain, which stood high to the south of Kochi City, but that cluster and the fuzzy comet near Zeta were not visible to the naked eye. It could be seen only with the telescope. I searched around Zeta Pup for some time, then caught the cluster crowed with numerous twinkling stars near the edge of the circular eyepiece field at 23:50. At the appearance of the cluster I held my breath. The next moment that fuzzy object hurriedly entered the field of view. "I've done it!" I held the telescope handle firmly to secure it at the position.

    The first thing that the observer must do after sighting a new comet is to determine its position. At the same time you have to record the accurate time of discovery and immediately report it to the observatory. I was spellbound for some time by the mysterious image of the comet. The date was now changing from February 4 to February 5. I started climbing down the ladder holding the observing data and atlas in my arm.

    This object was undoubtedly a new comet. Though very faint, I was able to see a tail-like glow, characteristic of the comet. But until its motion is confirmed, it is not 100% certain. Reporting of a discovery must be prompt, but requires caution. If I made a mistake, the responsibility would not stop at me. If it was reported overseas, it would be an embarrassment to the whole of Japanese astronomical community.

    Generally, to confirm the motion of a comet, you have to wait until the following day, but this waiting for 24 hours is unnerving and unbearable. While you are waiting, the new comet can be visible anytime, from anywhere in the world. The observer's emotion in a situation like this is not that of anxiety or impatience; it is impossible to describe in words.

    I spent sleepless hours throughout the long winter night. Around the time the soft light of the dawn arrived, I felt somewhat relieved and fell into a deep sleep.

    A number of new objects are discovered every year, but they are not often lost. Many observatories in this country and overseas are conducting photographic search over large areas of the sky for new objects using photographic patrol plates.
Enthusiastic comet hunters work hard to discover new comets which are missed by photographic search. I am one of these comet hunters. There are a number of hunters in Japan. They cooperate with each other to contribute to astronomy, but at the same time they compete for the honor of discovery.

    When a new comet is discovered, it is often named after the discoverer. Also, the earlier the discovery, the more useful it is for research. For these reasons reporting of a discovery is a race against time. If you are too cautious and spend too much time trying to verify it, you can be beaten by other observers even though your discovery could be the first in the world.

    Comet Crommelin, which I will discuss later, is an important comet to me. It was discovered by Mr. Masamitsu Yamasaki in October, 1928. It was the first in the world but it ended up in a bitter disappointment that the honor of discovery went to an observer outside Japan because of its "mysterious" disappearance. Therefore, the discovery of a new object will put the discoverer on the pins and needles until a telegraph of acknowledgement is received after the observation results have been sent away.

    The following morning, it was past 9 o'clock when I woke up. Bright winter sun is reflected on the windows on the south side of the house. Immediately, I opened the window and looked up in the winter sky. Luckily, there wasn't even a piece of cloud in the sky. I felt awkward thinking that a new comet was shining somewhere in this winter sky without being noticed by anybody in the world.

    "I have to figure out the nature of this object and report it to Copenhagen tonight. Yes, tonight!"

    I checked my observing equipment and telescope collimation in the bright sunshine during the daytime. I climbed to the observing deck in the court yard well before the nightfall.

    It was a clear starry night but the northerly wind was strong. At 22.10 Puppis showed its tip above the low mountain ridges in the southeast. Zeta Pup was slowly rising. "Has the comet moved? If it's moved even a little against the background stars, it's great."

    With heightened expectations I looked into the eyepiece. It's the moment of truth.

    First, I caught that beautiful cluster. I quickly looked around.
"No, it's not there!" What happened? There was no sign of the comet I had definitely seen on the previous night. It would certainly be a comet if it moved. But the comet was not there. I could only see the impressive pattern of the cluster. What happened?

    Even if the comet has moved, the distance it has traveled must be small. The wide-angle eyepiece must catch the comet.

    I stared at the field harder. I cannot see anything but the flickering stars of the cluster. "Is that fuzzy object I saw last night just an illusion?" I felt all my strength draining from my body.

    I looked at my watch. The luminescent hands pointed at 22.30. Twenty-four hours had just passed since my discovery. The object I saw last night cannot be just an illusion. It was very fuzzy but the central part was quite clear. I also noticed a faint tail-like glow, characteristic of the comet. Is it lost?

    Comets cannot disappear without a trace like this, as its motion is based on Newton's law of gravity. "Has it faded because of some physical forces?" This was a little worrying. I had often experienced a strange phenomenon that a comet faded over a very short period of time. I was disheartened and started into space.

    Should I send a discovery telegram to the observatory with the comet remaining missing? Or should I do nothing and let it go? I could not make up my mind. The powerful astrograph of Tokyo Observatory might be able to recover it. What if my discovery was just an illusion.... I couldn't decide what to do. Many false discovery reports had been sent to the observatory. Observers must be extremely careful and accurate about reporting, as false reports would cause a lot of trouble to other observers.

    While I was agonizing, Puppis rose higher and second-magnitude Zeta Pup was just about to reach its culmination. It was just above Washio Mountain which stood due south from Kochi City. At that moment I noticed something. Zeta Pup was shining rather strangely. I was aware of it for some time. At first I thought there was some thin cloud, but it didn't seem to be the case. The sky was completely clear without a single piece of cloud.

    I focused on Zeta Pup again and intensely concentrated my mind on it. At this very moment I saw it! A faint white soft was glowing near the blazing light of Zeta Pup. "This is it!" I hadn't been able to see it overwhelmed by the intense brightness of Zeta, but this must be the object I had seen on the previous night. It's time to report to Copenhagen. "I have to measure the position accurately for reporting." I prepared myself for drawing this object right away. I will never lose it again!

    My whole body was very tense and my hand clutching a pencil was shaking. Toward the edge of the field, that cluster of dozens of vigorously shimmering stars was seen. This cluster was the one on Norton's Atlas. This new object seemed to be moving slowly to the southwest. "I need to report it quickly before it moves south and becomes invisible from Japan." While I was drawing the field stars very carefully, my heart was already flying to Copenhagen.

Part Three: Coded telegram

    The most important aspect of comet observation is to measure the positions of the comet. Even if it is lost, the correct positions will often provide enough clues for later recovery. With three separate observations of the same comet at certain intervals the comet's orbit can be determined and it is unlikely that it is mistaken for another comet. Therefore, measurements must be made carefully. Under dim red light of a flashlight covered by red cloth, I recorded each field star very carefully, and then drew that fuzzy object among the stars. Now the observation was complete. I grabbed the notebook which contained the results of my observation and left the telescope behind. When I was about to climb down the ladder, something made me feel uneasy: "Somewhere in the world..."

    All over the world there are a large number of comet hunters competing for the honor of discovery. I could not relax now. Even if you managed to discover something, someone else could have discovered it and beat you only by a second. But I stopped worrying soon. The discovery position of this comet was at declination 38 degrees south, low in the southern sky. It was almost hugging the horizon. A majority of skilful observers outside Japan reside at high latitudes in Europe and this southern comet should not be visible from them. I was rather relieved. Comet hunters are always anxious that there may be someone else somewhere in the world looking at the same comet. Isn't there anyone who is watching this comet?

    There was one person who was staring at this comet, while I was preparing a discovery report. He was watching the sky over a desert in America, halfway around the world. My vague concern was about to become a reality, but there was no way to know it, when I was preparing a repot. I had to hurry. This low altitude comet would sink below the horizon soon. It was close to midnight. The first thing to do would be send a telegram to Tokyo Observatory. Once the discovery had been verified by the observatory, they would be ready to telegraph the news immediately to Copenhagen in Denmark, where the Center for Astronomical Telegrams is located.

    I went back to my room, put all the observational results together, and began writing a telegram message. A discovery telegram uses a world-wide universal format and coding made up of groups of 5 numerals. This message provides all the necessary data of a newly discovered object in a simple and self-explanatory way including its type, brightness, position, and the direction of motion. For example, for the description of the comet's appearance, "7" represents a small disk-like object and "9" means a comet with a tail longer than one degree. A slight error in numerals can create a serious problem. For example, "1" means declination south (the southern hemisphere sky) but "2" represents declination north. Therefore, a little error of putting "1" for "2" causes a significant difference in the object's position. In order to avoid this sort of error, we are expected to add up all the numerals in the message and give the total at the end of the message. I checked the message of the telegram many times. I was overcome with emotion when I thought of this message reaching Tokyo Observatory, then being sent to Copenhagen for distribution all over the world.

    I put the message in my pocket carefully and hurried to the telegraph office through the midnight streets. As soon as I arrived at the office, I wrote on the telegram paper the coded message to report the discovery of a new comet. The message reads:

    "1962, February 4, 23 hours 55 minutes, a new comet was discovered 2 degrees northeast of Zeta Puppis, magnitude 9, southwest motion"

    When just about to leave the telegraph office after sending the message, another disturbing possibility crossed my mind. "Will this telegram reach Copenhagen overnight?"

    You were expected to report the discovery of a new object to Tokyo Observatory. The observatory was located in Musashino, far from the city center and it would take some time for a telegram to be delivered. It was way past 11:00 pm. The new comet would set below the horizon soon. Suddenly, I thought of Mr. Minoru Honda at Kurashiki Observatory. "That's right. I should send a telegram to Kurashiki Observatory. It may reach Kurashiki before it is delivered to Tokyo Observatory." If the discovery was verified by Kurashiki, it would be reported to Tokyo Observatory and then on to Copenhagen.

    I sent a telegram to Mr. Minoru Honda at Kurashiki requesting the confirmation of my discovery. This turned out to be a right decision. The telegram I had sent that night was delivered to Kurashiki during the night. However, a new development rather disconcerting was happening at Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

Copyright (C) 2007 Tsutomu Seki.