Exploring Galaxies

This past week, I’ve been working at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s WIYN telescope using one of the workhorse instruments called HexPak to help astronomers better understand how galaxies work. At left is a photo I took of the galaxy M51 with the New Mexico State University 1-meter telescope. While we can learn a lot studying photos like this, wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn more, and understand what chemical elements make up the different parts of a galaxy? The instrument HexPak is designed to do just that.

One of the best tools we have for understanding the chemistry of objects in space is spectroscopy. Back in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that if you looked at heated elements through a spectroscope, you would see a characteristic set of lines in the rainbow-like spectrum. These lines are like a fingerprint for each element. It turns out that stars are really good at heating up elements! Below is a photo of the WIYN telescope with HexPak mounted.

HexPak is the white hose-like thing on the right plugged into side of the telescope. Inside that hose-like unit is a bundle of optical fibers arrayed in a hexagonal pattern. They look like this:

We can then align those fibers with a galaxy like M51 above, so different parts of the galaxy line up with different fibers. When that’s done, it looks something like this:

Now, I should note, this image was created just for illustration purposes. I haven’t tried to match the scale or alignment of my NMSU 1-meter image of M51 with the HexPak fiber array. However, you will see that different parts of the galaxy now line up with different fibers. That light is now sent downstairs to a bench spectrograph where it’s broken into its component parts. Here’s WIYN’s bench spectrograph. You can even see the rainbow like spectra on the grating at left we use to analyze the light from galaxies.

Light from each of the fibers in the array becomes a single spectrum and the image of that spectrum is recorded on a camera, shown at the right of the image above. Each one of those spectra will tell us about the elements present in each of the parts of the galaxy as lined up above. So, for example, you can figure out if the spiral arms have different amounts of a certain element than the bulge in the center. You can see what’s going on in the space between the galactic arms. If you look closely at my photo of M51, you’ll see it has bright regions that line up with parts of the spiral arm. An instrument like HexPak can help an astronomer learn if those parts of the spiral arm are different from other parts of the spiral arm, and maybe see what those regions are made of.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, this work does inspire my writing. Sometimes I look at a galaxy like one we study with HexPak and think what it would be like travel between the different parts of a galaxy. M51 has a lot in common with our own galaxy. What’s it like in the arms? What’s it like between the arms? What’s it like the galaxy’s center? What’s more, working with astronomers in the control room sometimes does feel like being a crewmember on a spaceship exploring uncharted reaches. All of these elements have influenced science fiction stories like Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to release the former and I’m rewriting the latter with help from supporters at my Patreon site.

You can get involved in the fun by becoming a patron. My patrons are the first people who get to read new stories in my science fiction universe and they get to download complete books when they’re available. What’s more, one of my goals at my Patreon site is to make this blog ad free. If you like behind-the-scenes looks into astronomy like this one, but don’t like the ads at the blog, please consider supporting my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

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My Adventures Without Coffee

Anyone who reads my books can probably guess that I love my coffee. Daniel the vampire astronomer cannot imagine being undead without coffee to warm the blood he consumes. Where would Ramon be without Fatemeh’s strong coffee to prime him for adventures in the wild west? Even my spacefaring adventurers make sure their ships are stocked with coffee.

As for me, I started drinking coffee during my senior year of college. I had housemates who made coffee, plus that was the year I worked at the Very Large Array radio telescope. Out there, the beverage choice was soda you could pay for or free coffee. As a college student, you can bet I took the free coffee. I hardly lived a caffeine-free existence before that. My mom always kept a pitcher of iced tea available. As a kid, if I wanted something to drink, it would be iced tea. As an almost nightly treat, she would let me have a Pepsi while I watched TV.

A few weeks ago, my doctor noted that I have an oddball heart rhythm. This is nothing new.  It was first diagnosed when I was in my 20s and as far as I knew, that was the way my heart rhythm has always been. Cardiologists have told me there’s little chance of it developing into anything worse. Despite that, my general practitioner was a bit worried. He immediately asked about my coffee consumption, and I told him I was a coffee drinker. He suggested I might want to give it up to see if it affected the heart rhythm. Given that the men in my family have a history of heart disease, I decided I should give it a shot and see what happened.

So, starting just before mid-November, I stopped drinking coffee. I also avoided caffeinated sodas and tea. I know I did consume some caffeine in chocolate and even in the occasional cup of green tea, but by my estimate, my caffeine consumption was the lowest it had been since I was a very small child. The first week without coffee wasn’t easy. The first day, I had a migraine-like headache. After that, I developed muscle aches in various parts of my body—my arms, back, legs, and hips all hurt at one time or another. This isn’t surprising given that caffeine does act as a vasodilator and giving it up would mean at least slight constriction of blood vessels. Despite that, I found I didn’t miss the coffee as much as I thought I would. It didn’t take me that much longer to “wake up” in the morning without it than it did with it. I really missed it on weekend mornings when I was most used to taking some leisurely time to read before starting my day. Also, after that first week, the pain finally vanished.

I didn’t get grumpy during my break from caffeine, but I did find myself feeling a little more prone to giving into my introvert tendencies and withdrawing to myself, especially during the first week when I was dealing with the pain. It’s hard to say whether this was a direct effect of stopping caffeine, or a side effect of the pain.

During this period, I looked into the effects of caffeine and learned that there, in fact, is little correlation between stopping caffeine use and correcting heart rhythm. Despite that, I personally have felt that I probably consumed a bit too much coffee on occasion and it seemed like it would be easier to return to moderate consumption if I started from “ground zero” so to speak. Sure enough, when I returned to my doctor this past week, he noticed essentially no change to my heart rhythm. I celebrated with a cup of coffee. Still, as I say, I hope this will be a first step in using a little more moderation in my coffee consumption.

Periodically a news story will come out about caffeine research. Sometimes the research indicates problems. Other times it indicates benefits. Most of it seems to agree caffeine, like most things in life, is best if done in moderation. Of course, any changes you make should be done in consultation with your doctor. I’m just a guy who tells thrilling tales of the imagination and studies distant galaxies, stars, and planets. Still, I found it empowering to know that I could give up caffeine with no problems if I desired.

If you want to read some of my coffee-inspired fiction, be sure to visit my website: http://www.davidleesummers.com.


Reassembling the Mayall

Back in July, I discussed some of the different components that had come in for the DESI instrument being installed at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s Mayall 4-meter telescope. You can read about them in the post, Assembling the Puzzle. The corrector optics and hexapod alignment system have been installed into the telescope’s top end. Here I am, hard at work torquing the bolts that hold it all together.

If all goes according to schedule, the new top end will be lifted to the top of the telescope next week. At that point, the telescope will look more like itself again. Control cables and network boxes for the top end assembly will then be assembled so astronomers working in the control room can talk to the instrument. At that point, the work platforms that are visible in the older post will be disassembled. Here’s a look at the top end, almost ready to lift up to the top of the top of the telescope.

Once the top end is back on the telescope, the primary mirror, which is currently out of the telescope, will need to be re-aluminized. Telescope mirrors are finely polished, curved glass. Over the top surface is a very thin layer of aluminum which is applied in a vacuum chamber. The vacuum chamber for this process is the biggest one in the southwestern United States. I describe a scary scene involving such a chamber in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Fortunately, care is taken to operate the chamber very safely in real life.

One thing to note about the top end in the photos above is that there is no actual instrument mounted yet. Astronomers rarely sit at an eyepiece actually looking through a telescope anymore. Most of the time, there’s a high precision digital camera looking through the telescope. Sometimes that high precision camera is designed to look at a specific wavelength region, such as optical light or infrared light. Sometimes that camera doesn’t look at the sky directly, but at light that’s been reflected off a grating. A grating is just a reflecting surface that breaks up light like a prism. The advantage to a grating is that you lose less light than you do when you shoot it through a chunk of glass. Breaking up light then allows you to see lines in spectra that tell you about the chemistry of the object you’re looking at.

In a nutshell, that’s the kind of instrument DESI is. Astronomers are interested in the chemistry of the objects they’re looking at. However, there’s one other feature you get by studying these spectral lines. When an object moves, the lines shift toward the blue end of the spectrum if the object is moving toward the observer or toward the red end of the spectrum if the object is moving away. That’s what we mean when we talk about blue shift and red shift. What’s more, how far the chemical lines have shifted is a measure of the object’s velocity through space. The goal of DESI is to measure the velocity of some 5000 objects every time the telescope points to a new target. That said, this data will be available to everyone and it contains all the fundamental chemical information about the objects the telescope is pointing at.

Before the final DESI instrument goes on, there will be a commissioning instrument. That will be more like a regular camera—more like looking through an eyepiece. The goal of the commissioning instrument will be to align the telescope on the sky after all this work has been done and assure that the telescope has good pointing so that we can get the best data when we’re using the spectrographs later.

Once the commissioning instrument goes on the telescope, I’ll return to my regular nighttime duties at the Mayall, shaking down the rebuilt telescope and getting it ready for its next five year mission. My novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, which I mentioned in passing, is not just a horror novel, but it provides a look behind the scenes at an observatory. If you’re interested in seeing what goes on at night at a facility like Kitt Peak, or one of the other observatories where I’ve worked over the years, it’s a great place to start. Just be warned, not only will you encounter astronomers, engineers and technicians, but some ghosts, a monster from Apache lore, and a few other surprises as well. You can get more information about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html


Short Sleeps

When I tell people I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona, one of the first questions I’m asked is some variation of how that works, especially once they realize the two points are approximately 325 miles apart. The answer is that I have a dorm room at the observatory. Here’s what it looks like.

The room is assigned to me permanently, so as you can see, I’ve added some personal touches. This time of year, I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time in the comfort of my room. I often think of the period from November through February as the time of the short sleeps. It’s sort of a counterpoint to Clement Moore’s “long winter’s nap” from his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Of course, the reason this is the time of the short sleeps is because of the long winter night. At optical observatories, we try to maximize the time we’re on the sky and that means data taking starts soon after sunset and finishes just a little before sunrise. To get the telescope ready for observations, I actually have to be at work before sunset. How close to sunrise we work in the morning depends on the scientific requirements of the program, but it’s not uncommon for me to work right up until sunrise. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for me to get six hours of sleep through the day before starting another day of work. Even if I wanted to commute 325 miles each day, it would be impossible.  For that matter, living closer wouldn’t necessarily help. It’s still 50 miles to Tucson.

I’m often asked whether I can write during my long nights at the observatory. The reality is that work takes enough of my attention that I really can’t compose new material while I’m at work. However, sometimes we do get into situations where I’m monitoring a long exposure and just need to look up from time to time to make sure the instrumentation is behaving as expected. During those times, I find I can edit stories. I also sometimes bring a good book to keep me company on a long winter’s night.

A casual observer will likely notice from the photo of my room that I’m a fan of Cowboy Bebop. Of course, followers of this blog will know that I’m generally a fan of space cowboys and space pirates. A closer look at the photo will reveal some badges from past conventions tacked to the bulletin board in the background. My schedule is such that it’s not uncommon for me to go from an event directly to work at the observatory.

My favorite things in this photo, though, are two things made for me by my family. My wife made the crochet jackalope next to my bed, which helped to inspire the jackalope harvesters in my Clockwork Legion novels. My daughter drew the lightning wolf picture which hangs to the right of my bed. The lightning wolf is, of course, the mechanized bicycle designed by bounty hunter Larissa Crimson in the same series. I’ve shown off both of these in more detail in other posts.

Of course, the Clockwork Legion books make good companions through the long, dark nights of winter. You can learn more about the books by visiting the links at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Exploring Space

Today, I’m at TusCon, in Tucson, Arizona where I’m anxiously awaiting the world premier of the film Revenge of Zoe, in which I have a small part. If you’re in Tucson, please drop by the convention and say hello. You can learn more about the event at: http://www.tusconscificon.com

A little over a week ago, I received an email from Bill Nye the Science Guy in his role as CEO of the Planetary Society, an organization I proudly support. The email encouraged members to take a photo with a Planetary Society T-shirt or with a sign included in the email. I was at work at Kitt Peak and I used my laptop to take this selfie which I then tweeted:

I first joined the Planetary Society in 1983, when the organization was only three-years old. It was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman who recognized a tremendous public interest in space. This was about three years after Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking television series Cosmos and the Voyager flyby of Saturn.

The Planetary Society’s newsletter, The Planetary Report, became a great source of information about what was happening in solar system exploration. It helped reinforce my interest in astronomy as I was deciding what kind of career I wanted to pursue. One article I remember in particular talked about the possibility of solar sails. I have a vivid memory of a painting of a heliogyro, a type of solar sail that was not only pushed by sunlight, but spun, so that the centrifugal force could provide simulated gravity for the crew. This sparked my imagination and I started writing a novel called The Solar Sea.

I started my college career in 1984. I didn’t have time to continue my novel at the time, so it waned. Also, on a college student’s budget, I let my membership in the Planetary Society lapse. After college, I did make a couple of attempts to restart the novel, but was never happy with the direction it was going. It wasn’t until 2007 that my publisher challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month that I finally sat down and wrote the book.

It’s probably a good thing that I waited to write the novel. In the 24 years from 1983 until 2007, I learned quite a bit more about the solar system. I also learned a lot more about plot and character. I had long ago thrown away the original draft of the novel and wrote the new version from scratch. By that point, the novel couldn’t wait to get out onto the page. I had no problem completing the NaNoWriMo challenge. I spent December and January after NaNoWriMo finishing the novel. My publisher loved it enough to take it and the first edition appeared soon after. The second edition of The Solar Sea was released earlier this year and you can pick it up at: https://www.amazon.com/Solar-Sea-David-Lee-Summers/dp/1885093845/.

I’m sorry to say the Planetary Society itself fell off my radar until 2015. Fortunately, I became aware of a Kickstarter they had started to fund a solar sail experiment. I contributed to Kickstarter and rejoined the Society. I’m glad I did and proud to be part of a group that works to keep space exploration alive and well. The Lightsail 2 craft that was funded by the Kickstarter is now built and installed in a Cubesat awaiting launch. At this point, it’s expected Lightsail 2 will launch in early 2019. You can learn more about the Planetary Society and all of its initiatives, including the development of solar sails by visiting: http://www.planetary.org.

By the way, that amazing painting I mentioned of a real heliogyro solar sail that inspired my dreams of writing a novel is on their website. You can find it at: http://www.planetary.org/explore/projects/lightsail-solar-sailing/story-of-lightsail-part-1.html. The essay also gives you a great overview of the history and science of solar sailing.

See You Space Cowboy…

Last week, NASA announced that after nine years of service, the Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel and will be switched off. It’s in an orbit around the sun, far from Earth. To date, it has been credited with the discovery of some 2,681 planets outside our solar system from both the Kepler and K2 missions. The K2 mission was the follow-up that happened after two of Kepler’s reaction wheels failed and it could no longer point at its target field. There are 2,780 candidate planets still to be checked with ground based observations, so Kepler’s total discovery count will likely increase even now that Kepler is off line. Among the planets Kepler has discovered include numerous Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting their stars in mere hours, many ice giant worlds like Uranus and Neptune, and there are some 361 candidate and confirmed planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

Earlier this year, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched. Whereas Kepler was designed to monitor one part of the sky and see how many planets it could find, TESS is designed to survey the stars nearest to the Earth. TESS has already its announced its first exoplanet discoveries.

Steve Howell observing at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, confirming Kepler discoveries.

At Kitt Peak, I work at the Mayall and WIYN telescopes, which are involved in confirming exoplanets. WIYN’s telescope scientist was Dr. Steve Howell when I started working at Kitt Peak eleven years ago. Steve since moved on to become Kepler’s Project Scientist and now serves as the head of the astronomy and astrobiology section at Ames Spaceflight Center which serves as the center of Kepler and TESS operations. One night while observing Kepler targets we began to talk about how Mars became more of a place in people’s imaginations after it started appearing in the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so we hatched plans to compile an anthology of stories set on Kepler worlds.

Our first anthology was A Kepler’s Dozen, which collected action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Authors like Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine imagined stories set in places like a prison colony, or escaping from the authorities, or encircling a binary star. We collected thirteen stories in all. We also included facts about each of the planets written about in the anthology. You can learn more about the anthology at: http://hadrosaur.com/kepler.htmlAlso at the page is a link to a press release by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory that gives more background about the Kepler telescope and Kitt Peak’s role in confirming discoveries.

This anthology has done well and Kepler’s success continued, so we decided to compile a second anthology. The follow up was Kepler’s Cowboys, which imagined the space cowboys and cowgirls who would visit the worlds discovered by Kepler. In this anthology, we encouage you to saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. You’ll meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. You’ll fight for justice in a lawless frontier. You can go on a quest for a few dollars more. We wanted an exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology. This one included fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, and L.J. Bonham. You can learn more about this anthology at:  http://hadrosaur.com/keplers-cowboys.html

Kepler has had a great run and it’s sad to see it reach the end of it’s life. Still, I think we could fill many more anthologies with stories about its planets and that’s even before we do any anthologies featuring discoveries by TESS. While you’re waiting, you can check out my space pirate story collection Firebrandt’s Legacy, which not only visits a couple of Kepler planets, but several other possible worlds out in the galaxy. You can learn more about that project at my Patreon page: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

October Adventures Continue

In my last post, I shared some of my adventures traveling around the country this month. Admittedly, a travelogue may seem a little out of place for a post appearing just two days before Halloween, but I’ll share a book at the end to put you in the spirit of the season and it’s even a quick read.

I left Kansas City on the train on Sunday night, October 14. By the time I woke up on Monday morning, the ground was covered in snow. I like traveling by train when I can. It’s a great way to see the countryside and although it takes longer than traveling by plane, it feels much more civilized. I enjoy flying, but the hassle of crowds, airport security, and flights filled to the brim take away much of the fun. Besides, my grandfather, dad, and brother all worked on the railroad, so I feel a certain family connection when I travel by rail.

I met my wife in Albuquerque where she brought my faithful Smart Car in for a service. We then drove down to Las Cruces with a brief stop in Socorro for some chicken mole enchiladas. For me, chocolate and chile come together to form the ultimate comfort food. After a four-hour sleep, I then drove to Tucson for a daytime shift at Kitt Peak where we’re continuing to refit the Mayall 4-meter for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Survey.

After three days on the mountain, I gritted my teeth for another short sleep, got up early in the morning to drive to the airport where I caught a plane for Denver, Colorado. There, I celebrated MileHiCon 50. The highlight of the event was that every living convention guest was invited back as a guest. Here you see them assembled at opening ceremonies.

MileHiCon is always a special for me because I get to connect with so many people I’ve worked with over the years. These include Bob Vardeman who was one of the honored guests and who created the Empires of Steam and Rust Series,  David B. Riley one of the co-authors of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys, J Alan Erwine and Carol Hightshoe who have edited many anthologies I’ve been in and who appeared in A Kepler’s Dozen. Denver is also home to Laura Givens, the talented artist who has done many of my covers, and also the co-author of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys.

A particular high point of MileHiCon was the annual poetry reading. This year it was moderated by Stace Johnson. Ronnie Seagren joined us and read poems by several different people. Sadly, Gail Barton, a staple of past MileHiCon poetry readings had passed away, but I was fortunate enough to have a copy of the poetry journal she often handed out at the event, which allowed me to share some of her poems. It was lovely to have her voice at the event at least one more time.

Once MileHiCon was finished, I returned to Kitt Peak to continue work on the DESI spectrograph. This time, I helped a team from Ohio State University build the racks that will hold the spectrographs themselves once they all arrive. I have to admit, building the racks was a process not unlike assembling a piece of Ikea furniture!

At last, I am back home for Halloween. I’m turning my attention to some editorial projects, including a new novella from David B. Riley and two great books from Greg Ballan. In my off hours, I’m reading some spooky comic books and watching a few hair-raising films.

If you’re looking for something good to read between trick-or-treaters on Wednesday night, may I recommend the collection Blood Sampler? This book collects thirty-five vampire flash fiction stories written by Lee Clark Zumpe and me. The cover is by Laura Givens and the book features interior illustrations by Marge Simon. Chris Paige, writing for the fan newspaper ConNotations in Arizona said, “If you like vampire stories, this may be the best seven dollars you can spend.” Admittedly the new edition of the paperback went up to $8.00, but the ebook is only $4.00. You can learn how to get your claws on a copy by visiting  http://www.davidleesummers.com/Blood-Sampler.html