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Memorable Comets

<Comet Toba resurrected from a waste basket>

- Excerpts from Tsutomu Seki's "Secrets of Finding Comets" -

I received a report from Mr. Koichiro Tomita of Tokyo Observatory New Objects Search Section on March 11, 1971 that Mr. Kenji Toba in Tsuchiura City had discovered a new comet. Mr. Toba estimated the positions of the comet on the morning of March 8 and 9 by his 11 cm reflector. However, because the right ascension measurements were made only to the minute and considerable errors were contained in his measurements, the actual position of the comet on the following day was well off the predictions calculated from its daily movement. Upon receipt of the discovery report, I attempted to confirm the comet. However, due to near full-moon strength light in the morning sky, it was not detected visually. I took a couple of photos through a 22 cm f/5 reflecting camera aiming at an estimated position calculated by Mr. Toba's measurements based on his two observations. Affected by moonlight, the plates were badly fogged. I intensely gazed at the plates but no stars brighter than magnitude 10 were found. I got upset, feeling that the whole exercise wasted my time. In recent years there have been many erroneous discovery reports made to the observatory and I thought this latest report would be just one of them. On the spur of the moment I threw the two plates into the waste basket (without knowing one of the plates had actually captured the comet.)

The plate was destined to be collected and carried to the town's incinerator the same day. Mr. Tomita at Tokyo Observatory was not able to capture this comet because of the incorrect reported positions and moonlight. I reported my failure to Mr. Tomita, and after that I thought that this object did not actually exist. While I was attending to other matters, completely forgetting about this object, I received a phone call from Mr. Kamo that afternoon. He said that there were some errors in the position estimates but that he believed the discovery report to be reliable judging from Mr. Toba's achievement in tracking Comet Abe (1970g) to the faintest magnitudes.

I remembered Mr. Toba's activity presented in the past publications and realized that he must have discovered something. Then, I rushed out to the collection point where my neighbors' rubbish was piled up. Luckily, the rubbish had not been collected yet. A fierce search begun to find the discarded plates. I didn't feel any embarrassment when digging into the rubbish because I was overwhelmed by my own stupidity and regret. Mr. Toba's success hinges upon my confirmation of the comet. What potentially fatal error of judgment have I made?

I washed the plate thoroughly and held it against the sky. The plate was still dripping-wet but I was able to see a faint, hazy image of the comet near the edge of the 3-degree-wide photographic field. In spite of a short three-minute exposure, the comet was clearly visible at magnitude 3 or 4. I was deeply ashamed of my careless mistake and immediately telephoned Mr. Tomita at Tokyo Observatory to confirm Mr. Toba's discovery. This prompted Mr. Tomita to check his plates again more carefully and he found an image of the comet on his plates. Thus, Comet Toba was resurrected
from a waste basket.

It may sound overdramatic but the failure in retrieving the plate may have resulted in a discovery by other comet hunters overseas or the comet could have been lost forever like the object I discovered in 1951. When I think of it, it was a critical moment because it was near full moon and Mr. Toba himself was unable to track it. I shuddered at the thought of these possibilities. This memorable discovery photo was later presented to Mr. Toba. It may be still shining on his desk oblivious to the circumstances under which it was confirmed.

[Comet Toba]
Comet Toba
4 am March 20, 1971
22 cm reflector

Copyright (C) 1999 Tsutomu Seki.