The Discovery story of Comet Seki-Lines
Part Four: A development in Arizona
In the middle of a desert, innumerable stars were shining
over Phoenix, Arizona. It was February 3, 1962. That night, a car had left
Phoenix and was speeding east through a huge expanse of a desert. The headlights
lit up the road stretching endlessly to the eastern horizon and across
the desert. One hour after leaving Phoenix, the car reached a mountainous
region. Richard Lines was an enthusiastic American amateur astronomer and
comet hunter. He had a long experience in observing but had not been successful
in discovering a comet yet. Phoenix was enveloped by smog, far from perfect
for observing. He made it a rule to drive once a month into the desert
for fresh clean air and beautiful starry skies.
He had several amateur astronomer friends in Phoenix. Once
a month he would organize a star party with them at a suitable location
in the desert. That day, however, he decided to do what he would not normally
If you drive for 50 kilometers from Phoenix, the city's lights
cannot be seen any more. A desolate landscape of the desert and starry
skies extend as far as the eye can see. It is very difficult for us Japanese
to imagine such a sight. Nothing is more stunning than the stars seen through
the transparent air from highlands and deserts.
Richard Lines unloaded his 15cm portable telescope and firmly
set it on the desert sand. The winter Milky Way stretched from north to
south over the desert and joined the horizon in the far south, where the
stars of Puppis were just about to rise.
His telescope was gradually sluing south along the Milky
Way, revealing the magnificent views of the Milky Way. When he almost reached
the southern horizon, he came across a cluster of numerous glittering stars
glowing in the field of view. At this moment he saw an unusual, hazy glow
next to the cluster. ("What on earth is this? A nebula? Or...) He
walked to the passenger side of his car to get the star charts out to check
the identity of this strange object. Then, he saw the beams of headlights
over the distant horizon. They were getting closer very quickly. A car
stopped quite close to where he was and he saw several people getting out
of the car.
They turned out to be the Linesffriends accompanied by Mrs.
Lines. They first went over to Phoenix to see the Lines, but finding Richard
had left for observing, they decided to drive after him to his observing
site with Mrs. Lines. He told them that he had just found an unidentified
star. They took turns to look at this strange object. Mrs. Lines reportedly
shouted: "It looks like a comet!" The crystal clear air over
the Arizona desert showed the comet easily including a faint tail streaming
from the coma. It was 23.00 the Mountain Time on February 3 or 15.00 the
Japan Standard Time, February 4. This means that Richard Lines sighted
this comet seven hours earlier than I did.
Soon after, the Lines and their friends were speeding toward
the city of Phoenix along a desert road in two cars. While he was driving,
Richard's mind was completely occupied by the image of the comet he had
discovered a little earlier. The Milky Way flowing in the night sky was
magnificent, but the unusual image of the comet was far more impressive.
He urged himself to get home as soon as he could to report the discovery
to a professional observatory. However, he wasn't aware of one serious
mistake he was going to commit as an observer.
At Lowell Observatory, Robert Burnham received a discovery
report from Richard Lines and began checking this object. Lowell Observatory
was located in Arizona and well known for being the place where the theory
of Martian canals had originated. It was also known world-wide as the observatory
where Pluto had been discovered. Lowell himself had long been dead, but
several members of the staff were actively engaged in research inheriting
Lowell's spirit. Mr. Burnham, a staff member, received a report on a possible
comet from Richard Lines, an amateur astronomer living in Phoenix. However,
he was troubled by the reported position of the comet. In an astronomical
discovery, the object's accurate position and time of observation are very
important. If these are not correctly measured, the observer's efforts
can be wasted. As for the object discovered by Richard Lines, it was fortunate
that 2nd-magnitude Zeta Pup could be used as a reference point. Richard's
report was not precise enough: "An 8th-magnitude possible comet was
discovered near Zeta Pup in the southern sky at about 23.00, February 3,
1962." In spite of this inadequacy, if the observatory could find
it and measure its position, they could announce the discovery to the rest
of the astronomical world.
The International Astronomical Union headquarters was located
at the Copenhagen Observatory in Denmark (moved to the Smithsonian Observatory
in the U.S. in January, 1964). All the discovery reports were sent to the
headquarters. Once a discovery had been confirmed, the news was sent immediately
to member observatories all over the world.
Robert Burnham at Lowell Observatory was an extremely well-experienced
comet observer. He turned the wide-field photographic telescope to the
area of the sky where the reported object would be located. This telescope
was the one that carried the honor of having discovered Pluto. Exposure
progressed and the image of the comet built up gradually on the photographic
plate. In 15 minutes it captured a magnificent image of the comet.
The desert city Phoenix in Arizona is located at latitude
33.5 degrees north, the same latitude as that of Kochi City in Japan. This
means that that comet-like object being tracked at Lowell Observatory would
be almost hugging the horizon over the southern desert now. As soon as
the plate had been developed, Robert Burnham began measuring the object.
The observatory confirmed the new comet's motion and named it Comet Lines.
The discovery report of Comet Lines flew over the turbulent seas of the
Atlantic Ocean to Copenhagen.
At Kurashiki Observatory, Kurashiki City, Japan. Mr. Minoru
Honda, a staff member of the observatory, went to bed early, but had his
sleep interrupted by a banging on the door by a telegraph dispatcher. It
was not particularly surprising to him, as astronomical telegrams were
delivered to the observatory frequently. But it was rather uncommon that
a telegram had been brought here this late at night. Sensing the urgency
of the telegram, he hurriedly opened this express telegram.
Mr. Honda wondered if he was dreaming. Comet Seki had appeared
just 4 months earlier. The telegram was sent undoubtedly from the telegraph
office in Kochi. This was a request to verify a new comet. As he deciphered
the coded message, his face began showing tension. "This is very urgent.
The discovery location is very low in the south. The new object will sink
below the horizon soon."
He instinctively looked at the clock. It was already past
12 o'clock midnight of February 5. It might be too late now. He put on
warm cloths, hurried to the courtyard, and opened the shutter of the dome.
He looked to the south. A large part of Puppis was already below the horizon
and Zeta Pup was hanging low over the city's skyline. He immediately inserted
a photographic plate into the astronomical camera and switched on the drive
motor. The telescope began tracking the target automatically.
Watching the hands of the clock, he opened the shutter and
began exposure. He was using Kodak's renowned high sensitivity photographic
plate. Judging from the brightness of the comet being at 9th magnitude,
it should be captured without trouble as long as the camera was on the
target. If it was below the horizon, on the other hand, there would be
Immediately after the exposure, he began developing the plate
in the darkroom. He was push-developing it using a strong developer. Developing
during winter would be troublesome, as keeping the developer at the correct
temperature was not easy.
It was finished in about 30 minutes. He held the dripping-wet
plate over a lamp to find the image of the object in question. The lower
half of the plate showed the roofs of the houses in the city. As the target
was low on the horizon, the buildings on the ground were on the plate too.
He stared at one particular point on the plate on which water droplets
were glittering. It requires a high level of skill to detect the image
of a comet on the plate because it involves an object not visible to the
naked eye. He placed the plate under a measuring microscope and began studying