Jump to top page

The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 25: The principles of a comet hunter

    "Mr. Yamamoto, who had passed away, returned!". Is this real? The person smiling there said to me, oblivious to me who was standing halfway down the stairs completely dazed, "My name is Yamamoto. My brother Tatsuo was grateful for all that you had done for him. Recently, I have been transferred to Kokubunji Temple here. My son wants to learn guitar and I am here to ask your favour." He looked upright and conscientious. I realized that Mr. Yamamoto had a brother who really looked like his twin brother.

    Kokubunji Temple is in Nangoku city and the 29th temple of the "Shikoku circuit of holy temples". The man I came across along the national highway in Nangoku city, who looked alike Mr. Yamamoto, must be this person. I am convinced that it was not the spirit of Mr. Yamamoto. Mr. Yamamoto rests in peace enjoying the stars leisurely in heaven. As the whereabouts of the telescopes owned by Mr. Yamamoto has been on my mind, I asked him what happened to them. All the three telescopes are are now in good care as family treasures, I was told.

    I have come this far in investigating the fate of Mr. Honda's 15cm reflector, but there is no proof whatsoever that Mr. Yamamoto's 15cm f/6.3 telescope is the one Mr. Honda owned. Perhaps, it was a different telescope. Then, where is Mr. Honda's telescope? Is the renowned 15cm mirror, which observed numerous comets, still reflecting beautiful stars even now? Or is it put away in a storage somewhere and waiting for a day to reflect the starlight again someday? If Mr. Honda's telescope doesn't reappear forever, then you can be reassured that the 15cm mirror was reborn as the mirror of my 15cm comet seeker and that it is in good use and productive. "It is advantageous and useful for you to have a telescope of exactly the same configuration as mine. I hope you use it frequently and find a new comet. I wish you all the best." I turned my thoughts to Mr. Honda's encouraging words when I completed my 15cm reflector and felt overwhelmed with emotion.

    If you ask me "What is the most important thing for discovering a comet?", I would say utmost concentration on searching and intense focus on observing in a perfect serenity of mind. The good quality optics help to attain the concentration of mind. Lenses and mirrors of poor quality will make it impossible to concentrate on observing. New comets at the time of discovery are very faint and diffused. It is good quality optics, trained eyes, and calm mind and experience that can pick out a slightly diffused object with an unusual appearance out of countless faint stars. I have discovered no more than six new comets, but after each discovery I would quietly reflect on it: " I wasn't thinking of anything; my mind was free of any thoughts." It is the state of mind called "munen muso" in Buddhism meaning "free of worldly thoughts and attain a perfect state of mind". Strangely, when a fuzzy object passes across the field of view, my mind senses that something is not ordinary and makes me stop slewing the telescope and stay in the same field, even though my eye cannot see it. "It is not clear, but definitely there is something indistinct. " While gazing at this object, I start vaguely seeing something looking like a comet.

    I believe that the discovery of a comet is made by one's mind. This is a subtle connection between a comet and a human. In many cases, when a comet becomes clearly visible to the naked-eye, it has already been discovered somewhere in the world. When you often sense something is not ordinary in the sky you are watching and the stars look more beautiful than ever, your discovery is not far. I come across more observers who decide to stop searching because of systematic search programs such as the Lincoln project (LINEAR). Are comet hunters so fragile and weak mentally? In the world of photographic search, these systematic search programs may be intimidating, but for visual searchers who search in the vicinity of the sun, they shouldn't be a death knell. I haven't discovered a comet since my last discovery in 1970. It is because my observing site is much farther from home, which makes morning and evening search rather difficult. However, I am continuing my search. Although they say that discoveries have become more difficult due to the Lincoln project, we hadn't made a discovery over long period of time prior to the beginning of the LINEAR. What do you make of this fact? For us the LINEAR program does not matter much. The important thing is to continue your effort believing that you will succeed someday.

    Since I moved my observing site to Geisei Observatory, photographic observation has become the main activity and visual search secondary. Mr. Honda was continuing comet search in his late years, but photographic search of novae was in the main. What Mr. Honda told me on the train vividly reminds me of its importance. "Even if you search for a comet single-mindedly, it will not be easy to find one; if you search for a comet alongside other observations, you will never be able to find one.." Mr. Shigeru Kaho, one of our great predecessors, taught me that the important factors for a discovery are effort, perseverance, and luck. When you concentrate on observing a comet, your eyes will be trained naturally. Therefore, you should persist in your unsurpassable effort and wait for the opportunity to arrive. The arrival of Comet Seki (1961f) was exactly what these words taught me.

    A while ago when I wrote about the Zeiss comet seeker at the former Tokyo Astronomical Observatory, Mr. Tatsuji Matsumoto of Osaka sent me interesting information related to it. It was in the spring of 1950 that I first learned about him. He published the drawings of Jupiter made by a 25cm refractor at Kobe Marine Meteorological Observatory. It seemed to be drawn at a night of extraordinary seeing. It was an unimaginable work with incredible clarity and details I had never seen before. This taught me how important stable air flows were for planetary observing. I was shocked at Mr. Matsumoto's drawings. The emotion and amazement I experienced looking at his drawings was similar to the one I felt when I saw the images of the planets taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Mr. Matsumoto made great achievements in the observation of Mars and Jupiter. He was also a researcher on telescopes. It was an honor that I was able to name Minor Planet 6660 after Mr. Matsumoto in consultation with Mr. Harada of Osaka.

    By the way, the important information that Mr. Matsumoto sent me was the book titled "The scopes and rangefinders" (Die Fernrohre und Entfernungsmesser) written by Albert Konig (translated by Shiro Tojo) and a copy of the Zeiss catalog in the pre-war days. Both carry detailed explanations accompanied with photographs and illustrations. Early on, I wrote that the Zeiss comet seeker was an unusual equatorial telescope. According to the catalog, the available magnifications were from 27 power (a true field of view of 149) to 265 power (10' field of view).

    According to Mr. Matsumoto's recollection, The refractor and 20cm comet seeker at the former Tokyo Astronomical Observatory were purchased using the World War One German compensation. It sounds like an inside story and is quite intriguing. The catalog Mr. Matsumoto sent me was for a comet seeker of the same model as the one installed at Tokyo Observatory and was housed in a dome. It is a digression, but I search for a comet using the 20cm f/12 refractor mounted on Geisei's 60cm reflector. Because I haven't done intensive comet search for a long time, my sensitivity to comet-like star clusters and nebulae is somewhat dulled. I often have to check star charts and it is not easy. The equatorially mounted telescope is quite handy because it gives the position of these objects digitally. However, it involves tremendous hard work almost overwhelmed by a huge telescope tube. At dawn break, I would finish my observation and head for home. On my way home, rush hour traffic starts. Because I am self-employed, I can relax a little during morning. Those who have to commute to workplaces will find it difficult. In those days, little affected by light pollution, observing from home in Kochi really seemed to be a life in "paradise". "Oh, no, I've overslept!" I would grab a small refractor (like a samurai warrior in danger grabbing a small sward and jumping out of bed) wearing only pajamas and rush to the rooftop observing deck and managed to accomplish a feat to find a comet! Such an incredible act now lives only in a dream of bygone days.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.