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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 26: What one old star atlas tells us

    In the 1950s, I acquired a 15cm reflector through Mr. Honda's kind help and also received a great gift from him. It was Antonin Becvar's Atlas of the Heavens, which was essential for comet searchers. Today, good star charts can be purchased relatively easily, but in those days star charts published overseas were not easily accessible in Japan and we had to rely on charts in pre-war days with the outdated epochs. Comet hunters need charts which show many star clusters and nebulae that can be easily mistaken for comets. Mr. Honda favoured the Norton's Star Atlas from pre-war days until around 1950. Norton's Star Atlas was something like an introductory book for astronomical observation rather than a star atlas and came with 8 star charts printed over 16 pages in the first part of the book. Star clusters and nebulae in the book were marked with the same symbols and met the minimal needs of comet searchers.

    Around 1950 I was using a "Murakami Star Atlas" for the first time. I was distracted by so many star clusters and nebulae and could not search efficiently. Mr. Honda asked me kindly, "Which star charts are you using? Star charts are more important than choosing a comet seeker. If possible, get hold of good star charts." This was Mr. Honda's warm sympathetic thought coming from his concern that I might have been frantically searching muddling my way through with my star charts.

    Around 1947 the Skalnate pleso Observatory in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain began systematic comet search. This reminds us of today's Lincoln project. They achieved great results fully utilizing a few pairs of 10cm x25 binocular comet seekers at an elevation of 1400 meters in the Tatra Mountains. The observatory director Antonin Becvar himself discovered comets. Not only Antonin Mrkos and Ludmila Padjusakova, but also Lubor Kresak and Margita Vazarova and others, in fact the whole of the observatory, dedicated their time and effort to discover comets. Those professional astronomers used the Skalnate pleso Atlas of the Heavens 1950.0, which seems to have been especially made for comet search. It was pleasing that the epoch was 1950, but above all, its advantage was it showed every single galaxy down to the 13th magnitude easily mistaken for a comet. However, it was not for sale and owned only by some astronomers. To a nameless, mere comet hunter like me, it was completely out of reach.

    In a letter I received from Mr. Honda in 1950, he wrote : "Mr. Kenmotsu of the Hydrographic Department of the Maritime Safety Agency is copying this atlas at the moment and, if he succeeds, I will send you part of it as a sample." In those days there were no photocopiers and the only way to make copies was to photograph the charts or trace them for blueprinting. In fact, what I received from Mr. Honda was superb 16 large-size hand-drawn charts. This very difficult task was accomplished by Mr. Kunio Kenmotsu, who was then (1949) a third year student of Kurashiki Technical High School.

    These charts had been very effective and useful for me over a period of 10 years of long nights prior to my cometary discovery, in spite of Mr. Honda's concern, " Haven't they faded?" When I spotted very faint Pajdusakova (C1953 X1) in Japan soon after the discovery, I found the charts very effective to distinguish it from many galaxies. They were handy because of their latest epoch and marking the paths of many comets on the charts was easy, too. The nebulae and star clusters in the charts I encountered during the sweeping were underlined and marked with descriptions such as magnitudes, appearance, and characteristics. (They were compiled as a Seki Catalog later.) Having been used for 10 years, the charts became a valuable record of my search. This way I built the solid foundation for an impending discovery of Comet Seki.

    Earlier, I mentioned a convenient way to show on the computer monitor the galaxies around a suspicious object you come across by synchronizing your comet seeker with a PC. However, what is important for actual discovery is your past experience built up over many years of comet search as well as a right judgement made based on what your brain has learned during search. You might end up making a terrible mistake if you became overdependent on convenient equipment. There is nothing more useful than the star charts you have become thoroughly familiar with by many years' active use. It is not an overstatement to say that star charts for comet search must be developed by yourself. Our great predecessor Mr. Honda put to practice this effective use of star charts. Before the Skalnate pleso Atlas became available in Japan, Mr.Honda's Norton Star Atlas with his own written remarks had become a star atlas for comet search at least equal to or better than The Skalnate pleso Atlas. When I look at my blueprinted star charts, the words and letters I wrote with a silver-color pencil on them bring back a lot of memories: Comet Peltier in later years, Periodic Comet Schaumasse, which repeatedly showed extreme changes in brightness, and a miraculous recovery of Comet Tuttle-Giacobini-Kreak. and over and above these, the path of Comet Honda, which grew bright and excited astronomy enthusiasts in the summer of 1955. All these memories reemerge in my mind, as fondly remembered past but totally refreshed. This atlas was a record of my trying and difficult times and the struggles on the eve of my first discovery.

    It was in February 1995, more than 40 years later, that I first met Mr. Kenmotsu. At the same time I saw Mrs Satoru Honda, too, after 40 long years. We didn't talk about the tracing of the atlas, but I was aware how it was progressing via Mr. Honda. While touring the Sumiji Hara-Minoru Honda Museum at Kurashiki Observatory, I was emotionally overwhelmed. There was displayed an old wooden square comet seeker tube Mr. Honda had most likely used for comet search in the early years of his search. This telescope tube clearly showing its age must have given Mr. Honda fresh joy and excitement of comet discoveries a number of times. I felt a strong feeling once again that comet discoveries are made by effort and hard work itself, not by expensive equipment or impressive facilities.

    The first success with this telescope happened in November, 1947. Only two years after the end of the war, Mr. Honda, having returned from the battle fields of South Asia, soon began comet search from his home at Setomura in Hiroshima prefecture. At 5 am, in the predawn sky of November 15 of 1947, his telescope slewed horizontally from Virgo where Comet Enke was shining to Corvus just rising in the southeast. Though it was only mid-November, the temperature was close to the freezing point and even the high-pitched whistle of the first morning train appeared frozen in the air for a moment, Mr. Honda remembered. He put his gloved hand around a 100-volt red lamp to get some warmth, while slewing his telescope. Eighth-magnitude M68 open cluster came into view and right after that moment, he spotted slightly southeast at a low altitude an 8th-magnitude comet-like diffused object glowing pale. As he was thoroughly familiar with this area of the sky, he decided it was a comet without checking it on a star chart. The time was 5.30am with the morning twilight beginning to push its way into the sky. @

    The report of the discovery was immediately telegraphed to Tokyo Astronomical Observatory. Because Japan lost in the war was under the rule of the GHQ, it was difficult to report the discovery via a regular route to the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams. Instead, reportedly the news was carried overseas using the mass media outlet Associated Press (AP). However, I am not quite certain about the accuracy of this anecdote.

    This newly discovered comet moved south at a rate of 2 to 3 degrees per day. After all, the comet was not observed in the Northern Hemisphere partly due to the turmoil immediately after the end of the war and moved into the the Southern Hemisphere sky while brightening considerably. According to Brian Marsden's Catalogue of Cometary Orbits 2000, it passed perihelion two days after Mr. Honda' s discovery but no definitive orbital elements were provided. The duration of the observations was only 20 days, showing an inadequacy of observatories at that time.

    It is understood that in the Northern Hemisphere no person other than Mr. Honda saw this comet. However, there were people who saw it. A few days after his discovery, a group of junior high school students visited Kurashiki Observatory. Meeting them, Mr. Honda promised he would show them an unusual object if they could come at pre-dawn time the next morning. Next morning, several enthusiastic students returned and Mr. Honda showed them the newly discovered comet using the Culver 31cm reflector. One of the students happened to be Mr. Kunio Kenmotsu. Later, Mr. Honda reminisced, "Those students who saw the comet were fortunate." After this event, Mr. Kenmotsu continued to work with Mr. Honda at an office of the Hydrographic Department located at Kurashiki Observatory, and since Mr. Honda passed away, he has been looking after the Sumiji Hara-Minoru Honda Museum. I believe he renders great service behind the scene.

    A half a century has passed since. This atlas, faded with age and soaked with night dews, has been with me through thick and thin and tells me all the stories and events from the past.
"Great Minoru Honda. Alas, he is no longer with us."

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.