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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 7: A strange story of Halley's Comet (2)

    Soon after I returned from New Caledonia in mid May in 1986, Mrs. Tomeko Goto came to see me from Tokyo. Needless to say, she came to Kochi to witness Halley's Comet on her husband's behalf. Mrs. Goto seemed to be already over 80 years old and her hair grayed completely. She always wore simple kimono gracefully and, although she looked gentle, you could sense her inner strength characteristic of the Tosa women. She stayed at a hotel in Kochi for one week to observe Halley's Comet. The hotel had some connection with the Yamauchi family. She must have been determined to accomplish her late husband's dream by successfully observing the comet for him. Her desire for realizing his dream must have been burning in her fiercely.

    Her husband did not easily help his admirable wife, however. The Tosa area was well into the rainy season and it rained day after day. The comet must have skirted the southern part of Scorpius and been moving southward steadily into the southern hemisphere sky, which was difficult to see from Japan. I looked south vainly out the window of my study, while Mrs. Goto was alone patiently waiting in her hotel room for the first chance to see the comet. I called her everyday to console her. "It will clear up tomorrow," I told her, but the "forecaster Seki" himself did not have a feeling it would clear up.

    One week had passed very quickly. I begged Mrs. Goto, "Would you please stay one more day? I am sure we can see the comet tomorrow." My word was not based on any reasoning. It came from my intuition and experience. My logbooks in the past 30 years showed that weather on April 22 had been fine relatively frequently and that I was able to observe.

    However, On April 22, it was drizzling again, fog-like rain, from morning. Whatever chance we had seemed to be lost. At half past 10 at night I gave up and went to the bedroom on the third floor. I lied down and was looking toward Washioyama mountain in the south. At that moment something flashing caught my eye. It was a rain drop on a wet tree leaf in the garden reflecting a distant street light and looked like a star. I was despaired and lost in thought.... Mr. Goto appeared wandering around the observatory. I remembered the image of Halley's Comet shining above Amedee Lighthouse in New Caledonia. I looked up at the southern sky again. "What a pity!"

    At that moment I saw a bright blue star shining. Spica! It must be clearing up! I sprang to my feet and grabbed the phone close-by. It was past 11 pm and it would be too late to talk to an elderly person at a hotel. It was no time to hesitate. It would decide whether Halley's Comet was to be seen twice by Mr. Goto. It should be easy for a Tosa woman with her fortitude to stay up and observe all night. She was going to see Halley's Comet on her husband's behalf. I sped along the highway to the observatory late at night.

    We arrived at the observatory in an hour or so. To my surprise I found several reporters waiting for us. How did they learn about this? Only in early April, Y Newspaper company got a scoop on tailless Halley's Comet, a mysterious phenomenon captured by our observatory. While Halley's Comet was visible, there were always reporters around the observatory looking for headline news.

    Past midnight, Halley's Comet was visible but barely above the ocean in the southwest and was extremely difficult to observe. The 20cm refractor mounted on the 60cm reflector was Mr. Goto's pride, which he built with his ultimate care. It delivers 40 power with a 60mm Kelner eyepiece. At 12.30 am the clear, bright field of the eyepiece finally caught the pale blue glow of the comet. Mrs. Goto peered into the eyepiece and her serious face looked far paler than the comet's glow.
"You have just seen Halley's Comet," she whispered and put her hands together quietly toward the eyepiece as if praying.

    They say there are a number of moving moments and images in our life. I have had some of my own. The image of the comet I discovered in the early morning of October 12, 1961. The image of the beautiful white walls of Kochi Castle reflecting the early morning sunlight. I was standing at the entrance of the NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph) office after telegraphing the discovery of Comet Ikeya-Seki. The emotional moment when I recovered the asteroid which I had discovered on the very day my mother died on January 26, 1986, after several years of searching. These are the moments when you appreciate that you are living and that your efforts have paid off, in spite of tremendous difficulties. Mrs. Goto's reunion with Halley's Comet on her husband's behalf must have been one of the greatest epochs in her life. I feel sorry for her, however, that after observing the comet she had to experience nervous moments swarmed by reporters and that she couldn't have time even for a sigh of relief.

    Spring has passed and summer has arrived. I received a letter from Mrs. Goto in Tokyo one afternoon in July. The sky had been clear since morning and cicadas were crying loud. In addition to her thanks, she said she reported at Mr. Goto's alter on her experience of observing Halley's Comet. Her letter also contained her poem.
The star of Ryoma and the star of Goto,
flying around the sky,
together seeking Halley's Comet.
    The star of Ryoma (2835) and the star of Goto (2621) are traveling through the sky. Recently, the star of Tomeko (5966) joined them to make the sky livelier. From Mrs. Goto's poem, I fantasized a conversation between Ryoma and the Gotos.

    One day, when Ryoma is strolling along Katsurahama beach, he passes the Gotos. They are wearing kimono supported with walking sticks. Mr. Goto greets Ryoma, "Mr. Sakamoto, are you enjoying the walk on the beach?" "Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Goto! It's great to see you both keeping well...the view from Katsurahama beach is always nice, isn't it?" says Ryoma looking toward the ocean appreciating the view.

    "By the way, have you heard of Halley's Comet?" Mr. Goto starts talking about the comet. Ryoma replies: "When I was still a child, my mother often told me about the comet. But it was only after I was turned into a bronze statue that I actually saw it." He laughs loudly, a laugh of a fearless warrior. "Mr. Sakamoto, I have set up an observatory at Geisei village, where your comrade Mr. Kakubei Sugano was born. I hope you can visit it when you have time." At that moment, humble Mrs. Goto stepped forward and said to her husband, "How about showing Mr. Sakamoto the observatory, dear? The Milky Way over Geisei is beautiful and I'm sure Mr. Sakamoto will love it." "It's very thoughtful of you. I would be grateful if you could take me to the observatory." Ryoma shakes sand off his shoes and begins walking. He is a man of small stature but walks like a big man.

    My fantasy continues. Geiei Observatory is a prefectural establishment and administered by Bunkyo Kyokai (Education and Culture Association). The observatory is staffed by 7 members and organizes public viewing nights about 5 times a month. I am in charge of the public viewing night when Ryoma and Mr. and Mrs. Goto are expected to come to the observatory. I show the night sky to a group of 30 adults and children. For visual observing the 20cm refractor is mostly used. This size aperture is sufficient for the public viewing, as it will not be easily affected by poor seeing and the planetary image is quite stable. There is no need for a larger aperture telescope. After seeing Jupiter and Saturn, we walk out of the dome and begin viewing the constellations. The Milky Way, just west of the meridian, is stunningly beautiful. The contrast between light and dark areas in dark nebulae is so high that you will feel it a little frightening. A beam of the flashlight is turned to the Great Summer Triangle. It is like a planetarium show. At the southern end of the Milky Way Antares is monotonously glowing red like a flame and the criss-crossing lights of fishing boats in Tosa Bay are seen under it. When the sky is clear, the colors of the stars are clearly perceived. We are mesmerized by the magnificent night sky. Then a child shouts, "Something is there!": "It looks like tanuki (an Asian raccoon-like dog). There are two of them," a woman's voice replies. A man's voice is heard, "No, there are three. A small one is behind them."

    A flashlight shows two pairs of eyes and another pair is looking toward us rather suspiciously. But all the tanuki run back into the bush, scared by so many people. I tell the crowd, "They say there were a lot of tanuki and foxes here a long time ago, but only few are seen these days because of the developments." Then I say loudly, "Turn to the east, everybody. The Pleiades are now rising."

1. Tanuki and foxes were believed to deceive people by turning themselves into human and inanimate forms. Perhaps the three pairs of eyes people saw at the observatory were those of Ryoma and Mr. and Mrs. Goto....

2. Ryoma's wife was Oryo. She was a daughter of Shosaku Narasaki, a doctor in Kyoto. His third daughter Kimie married Kakubei Sugano of Wajiki, Geisei village, who later joined Ryoma's campaign to end the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The bronze statues of Oryo and Kimie stand on Kotogahama beach looking up at Ryoma, who fly around the sky. Oryo lived long after Ryoma's death and is said to lament often, "If Ryoma were around...," whenever she had a hard time. Asteroid Oryo (5823) has now joined Asteroid Ryoma (2835).

Copyright (C) 2005 Tsutomu Seki.