Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors (小惑星、彗星、流星)

May 16-20, 2012

Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors is a scientific conference held every three years, organized with support from the International Astronomy Union (IAU), the same folks who in 2006 voted to demote Pluto.  Planetary definitions aside, I was excited when they announced a conference in 2011 in Japan; small solar system bodies and the Land of the Rising Sun, what could be a better combination?  Then the Tōhoku Disaster of 2011 happened, and the conference was postponed until 2012, a year of uncertainty for me.  I cobbled together a project, support, and submitted an abstract on observations I’d taken earlier this year on a binary asteroid system, (22) Kalliope and its moon Linus, and packed my bags for Niigata, northwest of Tōkyō through the alps.

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Kagoshima University Observatory and the (20000) Varuna occultation of 2012

January 2, 2012

Like a number of research universities, Kagoshima University has its own observatory. Nestled in rolling hills reminding me of Marin County and surrounded by beef cattle fields* (also a university property), the observatory is home both radio and visible wavelength astronomy facilities. A large radio telescope downhill from the optical observatory faded into the evening light.

Our telescope was a 1-meter reflector, operated by a posse of graduate students.  How to change the mirror configuration?  Put one of said grad students on a ladder, then grab his belt loops so he doesn’t fall into the primary mirror.

Why travel several thousand miles by squeezing onto Shinkansen like sardines to visit this observatory? A minor planet, known by its number (20000) or its name Varuna after a Hindu god, was predicted to pass in front of a particular star, occulting the distant stellar object’s light. Varuna’s shadow as cast by the star would sweep across the Pacific Ocean that night, ostensibly visible from Japan, Hawaii, China, Thailand, and other neighboring countries.  The actual occultation only occurs for a few seconds.

(20000) Varuna's shadow predicted track across the Pacific

Measuring this dip in brightness helps inform better orbital models for Varuna, search for companion moons, and even probe the existence of an atmosphere around the tiny, icy world.

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New Year’s Eve at Nitta Jinja

December 31, 2011

I’d spent the evening calibrating the telescope and making everything worked, so Hayamizu-san took me to the local shrine for a New Year’s Eve celebration.  The Nitta shrine (Jinja) was in honor of turtles and required climbing up several flights of steps on a hillside to the top.  Over 650 years old, this Shinto shrine and its 700-year-old tree had survived lightning strikes and World War II bombings.

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Sakurajima, an active volcano in Kyushu

December 31, 2011

There’s an active volcano (活火山, lively + fire + mountain) a ten-minute train ride away from Satsuma-sendai.  Named Sakurajima,  (桜島, literally, cherry blossom island), this formerly island volcano is home to giant radishes, tiny satsuma tangerines, and numerous hotsprings.


While Sakurajima continually erupts today, ejecting clouds of ash and smoke, its most recent major eruption was in 1914.  Locals knew before the big eruption that it was time to leave: they’d heard stories about the giant 18th century eruption when the islands’ wells boiled, shoals of dead fish washed up on shore, and earthquakes rattled their towns.  In what was a rare eruptive event for Japan, home to explosive high silicate lava, Sakurajima belched a veritable flow of lava (溶岩), which covered villages and caused the island to grow, eventually connecting via isthmus to the mainland.  The volcano erupts more than daily, spewing ash over Kagoshima-shi in the summer and further south in the winter.

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Arriving in Kagoshima-ken, Satsuma-sendai-shi

December 30, 2011

A few days before New Years Eve I boarded a plane to Japan, carrying with me a Pelican case containing a camera, a netbook, an assortment of cables, and instructions on how to connect all of it to a telescope at Kagoshima University on the southernmost main island of Japan.  The goal was to capture a Kuiper Belt object’s passing in front of a distant star in order to better understand the size and orbit of this icy world known as (20000) Varuna.

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Kaiten Zushi

September 13, 2011

My last day at JAXA dawned, unsurprisingly, hot and humid.   The lab group, however, did something surprising for lunch: we all went out to a restaurant for a meal.  About ten of us moseyed out of the campus and past the safety signs, where Beoka and Morita-san posed with the flyers, riffs on the Mona Lisa and the three little pigs/big bad wolf.

Our destination: スシロー (Sushiro-), a purveyor of 回転寿司 (kaiten zushi, or “conveyor belt sushi”).

We’ve all seen sushi moat restaurants where small boats of sushi float in a circular body of water surrounding chefs making rolls and tiny dishes; here was the Japanese original.

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Fuji-san: Shiraito-no-taki (白糸の滝)

September 12, 2011

The great Fuji-san adventure continued: we’d seen the ice caves; now it was time for my final columnar basalt waterfall of Japan: Shiraito-no-taki (白糸の滝).  After leaving the lava caves, we drove through the leafy forests and open fields; dense woods and steep valleys of Yamanashi Prefecture (山梨県, “mountain (Asian) pear prefecture”) and onto Shizuoka Prefecture (静岡県, “quiet hill prefecture”).

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Fuji-san: caves of lava and ice

September 12, 2011

Where were we?  First we climbed Fuji-san in the dark, walked around the summit, descended down its slopes of scree, and spent the night at a vacation cabin, Tozawa, on the shore of Kawaguchiko.  The adventure continues…

But first, a word or two about the local fruit suppliers.  Everywhere we drove near Fuji-san sold fruit.  Peaches (もも, momo).  Grapes (ぶどう, budou).  Mushrooms (きのこ, kinoko).   Other local specialties from the mountain whose kanji and hiragana I didn’t recognize.  A favorite rhyme about peaches and plums in Japan:


(A Japanese plum is a kind of peach, a peach is also a peach; both Japanese plum and peach are kinds of peaches.)

Yet, nowhere in these verdant prefectures did I see a single peach tree or grape vine, much less an orchard or a vineyard, despite abundant greenery and rich volcanic soil. Where do they grow those gigantic, dulcet, coral, iconic peaches so icon of the islands in Japan? Continue reading

Fuji-san: Kawaguchiko (絶好調)

September 11-12, 2011

河口湖, Kawaguchi-ko, literally translates to “‘river mouth’ lake”, one of the eponymous bodies of water in the Five Lakes District.  Arriving at the lake was fuzzy in my memory: I promptly fell asleep as Tatsuya-san pulled out of the parking lot on Fuji-san and drove down the mountain slopes.   Continue reading