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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 35: The stars over Mauna Kea 2

     The person who knocked on my door was "Hiro" living in Hilo city. He seemed to be a Japanese American. He appeared to be in his mid-40s, but his actual age was 24. As Hawaiians generally tend to appear, he was stout with dark skin and wide-open eyes. With his unshaven face, he looked scary at a glance, but as you got to know him better, you would find him a kind, caring person contrary to his appearance. He was a staff member of the local tour company and knowledgeable on the stars. He gave me a brochure of his tour company. He was quite knowledgeable on the stars and plants as well as Hawaii itself. The following day he accompanied us for a half-day guided tour of Mauna Ulu and taught us so much about the plants and volcanoes of Hawaii. He also told us that the huge eruption around Mauna Ulu occurred around 1969, more recent than we had thought.
     That night it was raining heavily. It was around 19:30 when Hiro picked us up at our hotel in Hilo city. The continuous heavy rain hit the windshield and the windshield wipers were busily wiping off rain. I asked him, "Is the weather at Mauna Kea alright?" "Leave it with me", he said confidently. We drove through the business section in 10 minutes and reached a dark mountain road. I felt tense with an expectation that this road would lead to the world's highest observatories under beautiful starry skies. There were almost no passing cars. When a car overtook us, Hiro said, "It is a University of Hawaii car and they are going to their observatory." He seemed to be able to tell whether cars belonged to observatories or not.
     About one hour after we left our hotel in Hilo, Hiro said, "Look, the stars have begun appearing." A blue star was shining like a rain drop on the windshield." How far up have we come?", I asked. He replied, "It's over 2000 meters now. We will soon be at the Onizuka Center."
     Suddenly, I saw a southern constellation. It was Scorpius. I caught glimpses of Scorpius through dark forest trees shining with incredible brightness. All three of us cried out, " It's awesome!", and we were glued to the windows.
     We passed by the Onizuka Center standing at 2800 meters above sea level. Suddenly, the road condition got worse and the car was shaken badly. Hiro began to drive in the darkness without lights being mindful of light pollution affecting the assemblage of observatories at the summit. During daytime we saw cliffs everywhere and a number of cars apparently fallen off. Hiro, probably familiar with the road conditions through frequent trips up there, kept going relying on faint starlight. I remember that, when we were about to leave our hotel, I saw the car's reverse lights and fog lights covered with red-colored tape. Hiro was likely a tour driver "incognito" today to show us Mauna Kea observatories. As his company was closed for business on Saturdays and Sundays, he took care of us personally. We didn't know exactly what and who he was.
     Just about two hours after we departed from the foot of the mountain, our car finally ran on the paved road near the observatories and stopped. This was the end of the road where we took commemorative photos during the daytime and saw the Subaru Observatory dome slightly below. Hiro, our driver, got out of the car ahead of us, but didn't return, though some time had passed. We thought he was just checking out the topography around there. Ten minutes had passed, but he didn't return. We called him, "Hello!" We were at the tip of a cliff and even an echo wouldn't return. "What is going on?" We became anxious and stepped out of the car timidly. What hit us hard was the incredulous darkness and overpowering frigid air like being tossed into a gigantic refrigerator.
     It was a sudden change from a 30-degree mid-summer at the ground level to a 4200-meter summit winter. It was beyond what my body could withstand. I quickly set up the tripod and started to photograph the magnificent Milky Way unfolding over the Subaru Telescope, but the cold air stiffened my fingers and made them clumsy. And the agony from the altitude sickness I had experienced during the day and windy conditions added to the misery turning it into hellish torture. Thirty minutes had passed since we reached here, but our guide Hiro was not back yet. We felt being deserted at the 4200-meter-high end of the world. The anxiety of being abandoned began ruling our mind over the agony of the cold.
     At that moment I remembered Akutagawa Ryunosuke's novel "Toshishun". Wanting to become a wizard, Toshishun follows a squint-eyed suspicious old man. He straddles a bamboo pole with the old man and goes to Emeishan mountain in China for training to become a wizard like the old man. He is left behind at the peak of the rocky mountain and tested his courage in various ways. He kept his silence faithful to the wizard's instruction while a storm, lightening, tiger, and white serpent attack him. In the story there is this sentence: "This must be a very tall mountain. The stars of the Big Dipper look as big as tea cups and bright." I wondered which is higher, Emeishan mountain or Mauna Kea? Emeishan mountain has a cliff at the back and a pine tree growing out of the rock face creaked in the blowing night wind.
     Here on Mauna Kea there is no vegetation. It is a mountain of completely dry volcanic rocks. Although the wind was light, the air at a sub-zero temperature hit our skin without mercy. How can I describe the glow of the Milky Way unfolding above the thin air at an altitude of 4200 meters. The glow of the brightest part of the Milky Way around Sagittarius looks very bright as if a full moon were thrown against something and shattered. This glow of the Milky Way extends from Scorpius through Lupus and runs as far as the southern horizon. A faint glow from a town on a little island floating in the distant Pacific Ocean tells us the dividing line between heavens and land.
     I turned my eyes to the north and saw an observatory jointly operated by U.K. and France and its dome is open for observing. Above the observatory is seen the awesome Milky Way. I thought seriously if I searched for a comet at a place like this, I might be able to discover one overnight.

UKIRT-Infrared Telescope (U.K.)
5-minute exposure, 50mm f/1.4@Provia 400

Looking around for the Subaru Observatory, I saw the unique outline of the dome slightly to the north. A small red light was shining. The Keck Observatory on the right had a similar light. Over these domes the magnificent Big Dipper was beginning to lower in the west. If the stars of the Big Dipper over Emeishan looked like a bowl, the stars above Mauna Kea would be more like numerous large snow flakes.
     It was close to 21.00. The eastern sky was becoming brighter as the moonrise approached. The outline of the Subaru Observatory became clear and sharp. Beyond the dome was a whitish sea of clouds and Haleakala volcano on Maui (3055 meters high) was seen above the clouds as if it were thrusting itself through the clouds. I remembered it was from Haleakala that on October 20, 1965 they succeeded in photographing Comet Ikeya-Seki in broad daylight on its approach to the surface of the sun. How wonderful it would be to observe under this magnificent starry sky! This place was literally "out of this world" and one night of observation at this volcano would be worth 10 years of the observation I have been doing.
     With the moonrise as a signal, we got into the car and found Hiro already inside. He said, "Have you finished? It must have been cold out there." Mesmerized by the superb views we had almost forgotten the cold outside. While descending the mountain, we were busy talking about Mauna Kea. The moment he saw the Milky Way above the summit, Mr. Kawazoe, a specialist in geology, shouted, "This must be the Milky Way in the Meiji Period (1868-1912)!" Come to think of it, the magnificent Milky Way like this may have been seen even on the plain in those days as the air was cleaner and there were no artificial lights. At Geisei, an elderly person living in the village for a long time once seriously asked me, "Why can't we see the Milky Way?"
     Around Geisei we can still see the Milky Way, though faintly. I can imagine that the Milky Way in light polluted skies today is very different from the one visible in the complete darkness. In the long past people turned their eyes spontaneously to the Milky Way because there were awesome starry skies above them. We can see the Milky Way today because we consciously look for it, but ordinary people will miss it.
     In the early 1970s when I started observing in a small shed at Geisei, the zodiacal light was easily visible and even the gegenschein, too, was seen at midnight. The sky over Geisei at that time was so dark that I worried the film would be fogged by their glow. The ancient people admired the night sky, created the constellations, engaged in astrology, and tried to understand the structure of the universe by observing the motions of the stars. It may be a natural progression that people contemplated the existence of the human. The Milky Way over Mauna Kea helped us actually feel for the first time that we live in an "island universe"
When we drove into Hilo, it was still raining. Feeling "we have returned from the grand Universe!", we walked into the hotel. We could see the the city's port out the window. The sea reflected the bright lights of the city and red and blue neon lights were beautiful. The noise of people drinking all night at nearby bars could be heard. I had just seen the magical, magnificent universe over Mauna Kea and such clamor people were making sounded vain.

     After this article was published in the January 2001 issue of the OAA Journal "The Heavens", I received a letter from Mr. Mineo Nishiyama of Yokohama. According to him, he saw Emeishan mountain from his plane while he was traveling in China. He answered my question in the article: "Which is higher, Mauna Kea or Emeishan ?" He told me that Emeishan was 2800 meters high and Mauna Kea was much higher. I had thought that Emeishan was a fictitious mountain in the novel, but learned it actually existed.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.