The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life
My 50 years with Comets
Part 34: The stars over Mauna Kea 1
In August 2000, an "blunder-prone" trio from
Geisei Observatory made up of Okamura, Kawazoe, and me Seki joined a trip
to visit the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii. Although I said "blunder-prone",
it mainly refers to me. On the last day of the tour, we stayed at a hotel
in Honolulu. Thinking there was no reason not to swim at the famous Wikiki
beach, I dived with my pants on.
Mr. Keiichiro Okamura had been an OAA member for many years and had the position of the principal of a junior high school. He was also involved with Kochi City Science Education Center. and an experienced science educator. He talks about the stars and shows astronomical objects to children at Geisei Observatory using his unique and excellent speaking skills. Mr. Noboru Kawazoe is a geologist and taught at senior high school. His hobbies are painting and astrophotography. He has recently joined the OAA and is particularly interested in aurorae and solar eclipses often traveling overseas to see these events. On this overseas trip he helped us a great deal using his excellent English language skills.
After taking off from Kansai Airport, Mr. Kawazoe,
who was sitting by the window across the aisle, and Mr. Okamura were busily
talking with a flight attendant. Soon after, Mr. Kawazoe walked over to
me and said, "This is surprising, Mr. Seki. That flight attendant
said she didn't know anything about the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii."
This was a regular flight to Hawaii and naturally they would often carry
passengers associated with the observatory. Furthermore, on the observatory's
opening day, even some members of the Japanese Imperial Household attended
the grand ceremony. If unintelligent , uninterested people didn't know
anything about the Subaru Telescope, I would accept it, but flight attendants
are young educated people who are to lead the next generation. I couldn't
figure out why they are ignorant about the world famous facilities like
the Subaru. I felt a chill down my spine for the future of our country.
We stayed on the Island of Hawaii for four days and
was surprised at unexpectedly bad weather. Our taxi driver said that one
out of three days was a rainy day. I was wondering if clouds would gather
at the foot of Mauna Kea due to the trade winds. I realized the observatory
domes at the summit of the mountain seem to be always shining above a sea
On the morning of August 18 local time we stopped by
at the Onizuka Center halfway up Mauna Kea. While we were there, something
totally unexpected happened. Two Americans (David A. Byrne and Terry L.
Teets) working at the observatory dormitory nearby took time out and came
to see me. According to them, Comet Ikeya-Seki of 1965 was easily observed
from the Island of Hawaii and on October 20, 1965, the comet, which was
approaching perihelion, was visible to the naked-eye near the daylight
sun. This was not be surprising under the deep-blue sky over 3000 meters
above sea level. Feeling envious, I looked up at the sky again. In the
far distance I was able to see the stately mountain range of Mauna Loa.
When I was looking at the gentle slope of the ridge, something caught my
eye and I was startled. It was an impressive sight I saw somewhere, but
I couldn't remember how significant it was.
The Subaru Telescope housed in a dome of unusual shape
was so large and so unconventional that it didn't look like a telescope.
We took a commemorative photo under a huge tube which might reach objects
as far as 15 billion light years away. I remember that Paloma's 5 meter
telescope was completed when I was a child and it challenged the unknown
universe. Having lost the war, Japan was in extreme poverty and the only
thing she could do was to look at the construction of the telescope with
envy. Half a century has passed since and Japan's astronomy has reached
the pinnacle of the astronomy world. Standing on the foundation supported
by many businesses, everyday activity of the observatory continues. I was
surprised at the huge daily cost of its operation. Everything of this telescope
was at the top of the world. The 8-meter-diameter mirror is supported by
121 arms controlled by computer-operated motors with absolutely no distortion.
The temperature inside the dome is kept at 2 degrees Celsius day and night
and reduces the changes of focal plane caused by rapid temperature changes
between day and night. The huge mirror is lowered into the basement below
the telescope and realuminized once a year. I can easily imagine how difficult
it would be.
Mr. Masao Nakagiri, a member of the Astronomical Society
of Japan living in Hiro city, guided us at the observatory. The tracking
accuracy of the equatorial mounting is 0.1 acrsecond. An extremely heavy
equipment is moved with micron precision. The operation of the telescope
of this scale will experience difficulties far beyond our imagination.
Every time they face a difficult problem, they overcome it by creating
a new standard based on a new invention. This guided tour impressed on
us the miracles of the human brain. I wondered, like a typical "man
of comets", what the limiting magnitude would be if a comet was photographed,
but I didn't dare ask an ordinary question like this in the middle of a
talk of cosmological scale. I think we were told of a revolutionary imaging
method having the sensors recognize the scintillation of the stars and
shift the focal plane to compensate for it. I might have misunderstood
the explanation, though. At the end of the tour I handed Mr. Nakagiri my
calling card thanking him for his time. I was surprised when he said, "I
handed you a certificate of commendation at the general meeting of the
Astronomical Society of Japan."
Returning to a hotel in Hilo city, I was having a rest
when Mr. Okamura and Mr. Kawazoe came to see me with sake they had brought
along from Japan. They came over to discuss tonight's viewing session in
Hawaii. We came all the way to Mauna Kea and wanted to see the stars at
the summit, the most beautiful stars in the world. However, going up the
mountain alone at night is not possible. I am not sure if this is true,
but you are not allowed to go up to the observatory twice a day. The roads
around the summit are not paved and rugged, too. You will also have to
turn off the car's headlights, which adds to the danger of driving there
at night. I remember I saw a number of overturned cars on our way here.
"Well, we may have to give up on Mauna Kea at night..."
When I was lying on the bed, reflecting on the day's
events, I heard a knock on the door. "Who could it be, this late at
night?" This is the beginning of the story of a strange, mysterious
Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.