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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 do.

    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 Linesffriends 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 no hope.

    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 it.

Copyright (C) 2007 Tsutomu Seki.