Jump to top page

The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 6: A strange story of Halley's Comet (1)

    Halley's Comet passed perihelion in 1986 and moved west skirting the southern end of Scorpius from late March to early April. It was low in the sky and rather difficult to observe from Japan. Around this time a strange thing occurred.

    Geisei Observatory overlooks the Pacific Ocean in the south and had been crowded everyday with visitors to view the comet. But in April, when the comet was low in the southern sky, only a few visitors came. On the evening of April 7 I set up a strange-looking telescope at a corner of the observatory and continued to track Halley's Comet low over the southern ocean. This unusual telescope is said to be purchased by Yodo Yamauchi (the last feudal lord of Tosa) from Germany about 150 years ago. The first object this telescope captured that night was Halley's Comet, which appeared strange with a tail missing.

    This telescope passed on within the Yamauchi family has an 8 cm objective (f/15) with 32 mm-diameter-barrel 6 mm to 25 mm eyepieces. It comes even with a solar filter and a terrestrial-viewing eyepiece. Although the telescope is more than 100 years old, the tube is beautifully lacquered and the brass parts are well polished and shining. It must have been sleeping in the family storage at the castle for more than 100 years.

    First, I turned the telescope toward the Milky Way in the southern sky. The stars were tack-sharp and faint stars were beautiful filling the field like sprayed sand. But the general tone of the eyepiece field inclined toward blue creating beautiful violet-colored dreamy effects. A slight fuzziness around the center may be caused by spherical aberration. Coma, which produces comet-like star images, was minimal, excellent for a lens made in the 1800s. A satellite crossed the field with a faint flashing red light. Then, I turned the telescope to Halley's Comet low in the southern sky. I wondered who had looked at Halley's Comet through this telescope at its 1835 apparition, the year Ryoma was born.

    Halley's Comet was shining in the night sky for the third time after its 1835 appearance, while satellites crisscrossed the sky. I had a feeling that I witnessed 150 years of history in a flash from the end of the Shogunate to the era of satellites. When the telescope captured the comet moving westward, a short distance to the south from the Scorpion's tail, almost touching the horizon, its unusual appearance first caught my eye. Incredibly, I couldn't see the tail at all! It was supposed to be displaying a magnificent 7-8 degree-long tail stretching to the northwest, after passing perihelion on February 11. But on April 7 the tail disappeared and only its disk-like appearance remained visible. (Is it real? Isn't it caused by the telescope's large f-ratio? Am I misled by the dubious telescope handed down in the Yamauchi family?) I turned the 60cm telescope to the comet immediately and learned that the tailless appearance of the comet wasn't because of this antiquated telescope. Even through a large aperture like this 60cm telescope the comet was tailless and showed only a huge, awesome disk-like coma. It might look like this because of the direction of the tail which made it difficult for us to see or the comet might have exhausted gas temporarily and become inactive. I thought the latter was the case. The next morning (April 8) the comet flew south remaining tailless. During my stay at New Caledonia from April 8 to 13, I saw the comet completely different, this time, with a very short, fan-shaped tail.

    Thanks to Halley's comet, I traveled extensively. Between late March and mid April, I flew over the equator twice. I also went to the northern end of Hokkaido three times. I remember it was around 1984 prior to the comet's close approach. I visited Kitami City in Hokkaido to give a talk. Kitami and Kochi have a sister city affiliation engaging in cultural exchanges. The then mayor of Kitami asked me if I could name one of the minor planets Kitami so that Minor Planets Kochi (2396) and "Kitami" could fly together in space as a symbol of the sister city relations. Until then, incredibly there had not been even a single discovery of comet or asteroid from Hokkaido.

    During the talk at Kitami I told the audience about the significance of discovery of new objects. I assured them that I would discover a new "star" for Kitami. Until this assurance became reality, the "star for Kitami" had been often written about in the media for several years. My second visit to Kitami took place around 1988 when the minor planet 1986 WM, which I had discovered in 1986, was confirmed as 3785 and named Minor Planet Kitami. A ceremony was held by Kitami City to celebrate the designation of Minor Planet Kitami and they held a lecture meeting for me to report on the naming of the minor planet. Mr. Seiji Ueda and others were in the audience, who later became Japan's leading discoverers of minor planets. This was followed by an explosion of minor planet discoveries in Hokkaido. I am really impressed with the power of the media.

    I believe it is a revolutionary development that they discovered and observed many minor planets using small 15cm- to 20cm-aperture telescopes. It is not uncommon today that large-aperture telescopes exceeding one meter in aperture are installed at observatories for public viewing. There seems to be a "mine is larger than yours" mind-set among them and try to beat others by building the largest telescope in the country, even if it is just a difference of 1 centimeter in size. In a way it is quite trivial and fruitless. It is far more important to acquire or develop competent observers to achieve useful results, even if the telescope is smaller than others. It is pitiful if large telescopes are used only for viewing the planets or taking photos of nebulae and clusters for display purposes, in spite of huge amounts of money spent on the instruments. My motto about observing is "make the best use of the given aperture for the maximum results." This is what I always keep in mind. It is impressive that Japanese amateurs have discovered solar system objects using small telescopes to the best of their capacity. In the era of comprehensive search by Lincoln Laboratory (LINEAR) and others, it is very interesting to see how small to medium observatories in Japan are going to tackle this competition and find their niche. Searchers in Japan are indeed at a critical juncture.

    I am writing this story at a desk given as a gift by Kitami City in Hokkaido to commemorate the naming of Minor Planet Kitami. It is an impressive desk built of high-quality timber of Hokkaido. Strangely, when I sit at this desk, memories of the old days return and prompt my writing.

    In mid April 1986, I received a letter from Mrs. Tomeko Goto, the wife of Mr. Goto, who is the father of Geisei Observatory. By then, madness about Halley's Comet had subsided as it moved south.
Dear Mr. Seki,
I apologize for not having written you for a long time, but hope you are keeping well. I follow your achievements through the media. Around the time when you captured Halley's Comet earlier than anybody else in Japan, my husband often said that he was very pleased with his gift of the telescope contributing so much. He became interested in astronomy when he saw Halley's Comet in his youth. How much he looked forward to the second encounter with the comet! He persevered with his diabetic conditions. Both of us had been taking great care of our health until old age. His wish to see Halley's Comet again helped him to continue to live. He would frequently say that he would visit Geisei to see the comet when it became visible even if he might be physically disabled. His dream didn't come true and my heart is torn by his grief over the unfulfilled dream.

I wonder if I could ask a favor. I would like to see Halley' s Comet for my husband, if you permit me. We have been always together in our life. When I see the comet, my husband will be seeing it. He will see the comet through my eyes. I would ask your compassion and sincerely hope that the last wish of this old grieving woman is answered. Please forgive my discourtesy of asking your generosity in this way.
Faithfully yours
Mrs. Tomeko Goto arrived in Kochi in mid April, 1986.

    In Tosa there are people who can be best described by words such as "Igosso" or "Hachikin". In order to discover a comet you need a bit of the spirit of "Igosso" , which can be roughly translated as "stubborn person". "Hachikin" refers to a domineering woman. They are often not helpful, and if you marry one of them, she will not become a supportive wife. Instead, you will be under her thumb all your life. But there were many women in Tosa, faithful and devoted to their husbands. I suppose that Mrs. Goto is the last of these Tosa women, who can be compared to the wife of Kazutoyo Yamanouchi, well-known for her admirable dedication to her husband.

Copyright (C) 2005 Tsutomu Seki.