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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 of clouds.
     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 person's visit.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.