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The Discovery story of Comet Seki-Lines

Part Seven: Search in broad daylight

    My comet was being pulled closer and closer to the sun by gravitation. As many theorists predicted, this comet had been traveling the predicted orbit precisely and was now 5 million kilometers from the sun's surface. I was watchful of the comet studying its daily appearances, just like parents being anxious of their child traveling alone.

    The puny little body, when it was born, had grown larger and larger receiving the intense heat of the sun. On March 17 that year, two weeks before the collision with the sun, it became a naked-eye comet showing a beautifully developed fan-shaped tail.

    It was destined to meet a terrible fate soon and I sensed a kind of loneliness in the silvery image of the comet in my telescope. It was my last observation of the comet before it disappeared into the glare of the sun. All these days I had been exchanging observation results with observatories and amateur astronomers in Japan. The astronomical world was in heightened excitement. The leading astronomers in Japan including Mr. Minoru Honda reported daily on the steadily approaching comet. Stunning photographs, some of which had been taken by Tokyo Astronomical Observatory and a 6000mm telephoto lens at the U.S. Naval Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona, were made public. However, in late March, all the information and photographs stopped coming in completely and for some time we had been left in a vacuum without any report on the comet whatsoever. Time passed on and on April 1 the comet would make the closest approach to the sun. Soon after, it would appear as a huge comet in the western sky not long after the sunset. But if it had evaporated before that, we would not able to see it again. I really wanted to have another look at my "child" before he plunged into the sun. Unable to be sitting still awaiting the fate of my comet, I took a very unusual step and began to search daytime sky.

March 26 fine
    Six days to the comet's collision with the sun. Cold seasonal winds. At 18.20 I searched near the horizon in twilight, but visibility poor due to dark clouds.

March 27 fine
    Five days to the collision. For 20 minutes from 15.00 I searched east of the sun during the daytime using a refractor at 17x, but failed to detect it. Predicted magnitude 1.

March 30 thin clouds
    Two days to the collision. At 14.50 I found an intensely shining object in a small gap in the clouds. Unable to confirm the object. Comet? Venus? Predicted magnitude -1.

    The above are some of the entries in my diary prior to the comet's contact with the sun. The comet must have been very close to the sun, only about three times the sun's diameter away from the sun. Two more days and the comet should plunge into the sun. Even now the sun's 6000-degree heat must be striking my comet furiously. Can the low-density comet withstand the heat, which could melt every single object on the earth? I followed the comet's motion daily praying for its survival. We had set up our observing base at the summit of Washioyama Mountain. On the evening of March 31, one day before the comet's collision with the sun, I lugged a telescope up to Hituzan Park in Kochi City with Mr. Ike. The comet's predicted position was behind the sun and there was extremely small chance for finding the comet that day. In spite of that, we went to Hituzan Park, partly to test our preparedness before the event and partly to allow the public to view the comet as requested by the media. For rehearsing, we used a reflector to view the evening sky for half an hour while hearing the humming noise of a 16mm movie camera. When we lust about finished the testing and began leaving the mountain top, we saw ominous clouds rising above the western horizon where the sun was setting. It was a very worrying sign for tomorrow's weather.

    We were going to climb Washioyama Mountain for an encounter with the comet the next day. I looked at the western sky anxiously. The ridges of rising clouds were shining like a comet reflecting the light from the reddened setting sun in the west. "You must survive it! You have to come back in one piece. I've poured my sweat and blood of 10 long years into this." I stood still and stared at the red clouds for some time.

    After returning home, we spent most of our time fine-tuning the telescope, while worrying about weather all the time. The comet would be visible very briefly immediately after the sunset and whether it could be observed or not would become clear within a moment. We prepared the telescope and other observing equipment very carefully. "But, Mr. Seki, how could you have such a reckless son?" Mr. Ike stopped polishing the telescope tube and laughed heartily comparing the comet to an undisciplined son. Comets are wanderers and drifters of space. Some may appear only once and then fly away to the far reaches of space.

Copyright (C) 2007 Tsutomu Seki.