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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 36: Memorable Comet Ikeya-Seki

     On the last day on the Island of Hawaii we visited the volcanic area of Mauna Ulu. Hiro said he wouldn't charge us any fee because it was a personal tour, but the three of us visitors discussed the matter and decided to give give him a small token of appreciation. The other members of the OAA tour had left for Honolulu. Just three of us took a different route away from the main group.
     It was cloudy with light rain in Hilo, but a 15-minutes drive took us to an area of a clear sky where we could view the magnificent view of Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa is only 100 meters less in elevation than Mauna Kea, but it doesn't seem to be a tall mountain because the plains at the foot of the mountain are enormous. It was a majestic view with the clouds hugging the gentle slope of the ridge.
     A long stretching road runs through a huge plain of darkish brown lava flows. On our way we briefly visited a museum near a large crater of Muana Ulu and continued to drive toward the sea in the south. For Mr. Okamoto this was a second trip to this area, but the first for Mr. Kawazoe. As an expert on geology, he checked the local geological features whenever we stopped. He showed me a small piece of a volcanic rock saying, "Look at this, Seki-san. This is olivine. It is a kind of pyroxene formed when the magma was crystallized at a temperature over 1000 degrees." As he said, if you had a good look at it, you could see yellow and blue crystals stuck on the side of the small rock. I was startled looking at this jewel-like shining crystals. It resembles the shine of something I saw somewhere. "That's right!" I remembered. It was the color of the blazing nucleus of Comet Ikeya-Seki seen immediately after its perihelion passing on October 21, 1965. The comet passed through the scorching corona only 35,000 kilometers above the surface of the sun. Eleven hours later, it was glowing near the sun like the shining rock of olivine having received the baptism of 1 million-degree heat.
     Most of the Kreutz family comets found by SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) did not survive the near-perihelion passage. It is like "a moth flying into the flame". However, Comet Ikeya-Seki was shining dozens of times brighter than a full moon near the sun passing safely through the extreme heat.
     "We are going", I heard Mr. Okamura saying behind me. About one week after perihelion, the comet began showing a long tail in morning twilight looking like a "naginata" sward (a Japanese sward fitted at the tip of a long pole) stuck in the ground upright. The photograph of this comet taken by the Smithsonian Observatory on October 28 features Comet Ikeya-Seki with Mauna Kea sitting ahead of us blocking our way.

Comet Ikeya-Seki rising on Mauna Loa
October 27, 1965

     The discovery of Comet Ikeya-Seki was truly miraculous for both discoverers. Mr. Ikeya, a young eagle-eyed comet hunter, spotted this comet in a brief clearing right in the middle of the eye of a passing typhoon. Ten minutes behind, I found it in a clear sky after the typhoon had passed. It was Mr. Ikeya's great accomplishment made by his intense search unwavered by the approaching typhoon.
     The comet seeker I was using at that time was a small refractor with an aperture mere 88mm. There was a reason for giving up on the 15cm reflector I was using and choosing this small aperture telescope. The 15cm scope certainly had a better light gathering power. But because of less than desired accuracy of the mirror surface, comatic aberration was severe and the usable area was only 40% of the surface near the center of its 1.5 degree field of view. This made me spend an inordinate amount of time to search a wide area of the sky and almost all comets passing near the edge of the field were missed. When I cast aside the reflector used for nearly 10 years and began using the 3.5-degree-field refractor, I swiftly and freely moved around the large area of the sky searching for a comet, feeling liberated back in my element. I believe that to find a bright comet it is crucial to be able to search near the sun for 10 minutes.
     This 88mm refractor lens was ground by the now renowned mirror maker Mr. Takao Namura. It was his first mirror in his successful career. He later became a "Modern Master Craftsman", who ground large reflector mirrors after beginning to work independently. Mr. Ikeya, too, has ground many superb mirrors as a self-taught craftsman. The excellence of their works has been proved by the 1.1-meter mirror at Nakagawacho Science Center (later Anan Science Center) and the mirror at Saji Astronomical Observatory.
     I think it was around 1975. Mr. Ikeya sent me a reflector mirror engraved "No. 1". It was a symbol of friendship between us after the discovery of Comet-Ikeya Seki. By mounting this Ikeya mirror in a telescope I discovered the wonders of the starry sky reflected on it. I learned the beauty of the stars he was watching daily during his search.
     This Ikeya mirror is now shining on my desk. When I peek into the mirror, the memory of the dramatic discovery of Ikeya-Seki returns. At times when I become exhausted from observing, having to struggle in life, and feel a sorrow, the mirror continues to encourage me.
     I have told you my memories of Comet Ikeya-Seki. There is a fact I have to tell you. This mysterious incident still crosses my mind long after the comet disappeared into distant space and continues to cast a dark shadow.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.