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
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.
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.