A High Tech New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is often a quiet affair for me. In a normal year, Kitt Peak National Observatory attempts to have telescopes pointed at the sky, doing science-related tasks on as many nights as possible. The only exceptions are closures for weather, engineering tasks, and we’re often closed on Christmas. Over the last decade, I’ve toasted the New Year several times at work with a nice cup of coffee. This year, proved a rare exception and I was able to ring in the New Year at home. In years past, New Year’s Eve at home has involved cooking up a big pot of a red chile, hominy, and pork stew called posole, then either playing games, working on puzzles, or watching movies until near midnight, then sharing a toast of sparkling cider with the family.

The posole still happened this year and, if I do say so myself, it was one of the best batches I’ve made in a long time. I credit that to my wife making stock for the base from some leftover pork bones we had in the freezer. The meat on those bones also became the meat for the stew. This is really the way posole is supposed to be made, but we often shortcut this step and cook the meat on the morning of New Year’s Eve.

Another thing that made this New Year’s Eve special was the opportunity to connect with numerous friends via video chat. On top of that, the band Abney Park performed a live streaming concert from their home studio in Seattle. I’ve seen advertisements for Abney Park’s New Year’s Eve concerts for several years now and I’ve always wanted to go. Among other things, one of their frequent venues for those concerts was quite close to the neighborhood where my brother used to live. So this was like a wish come true. What’s more, this concert came just a couple months before the tenth anniversary of seeing Abney Park play live the first time at Wild Wild West Con in 2011. Shortly before that, my family and I had seen a YouTube video of the band giving an impromptu performance of the title song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. When my youngest daughter met Captain Robert, she asked him if they could play it at the concert. He told her they hadn’t rehearsed it and didn’t have the music along, so they couldn’t. However, at the New Year’s Eve Concert, ten year’s later, with my daughter home from college and in the audience, Captain Robert and the band actually played Chitty Chitty Bang Bang live. It was a delight.

My daughters and a friend meeting Robert Brown and Nathaniel Johnstone at the first Wild Wild West Con

The other parties we attended were just as much fun, if for different reasons. I spent time with several college friends in one call. It was a relaxed time where we chatted casually as friends are wont. This party ended about 8pm and then we joined Madame Askew and her Temporal Entourage for their New Year’s Eve festivities where I connected with friends from all across the country and around the world. Author Karen Carlisle confirmed for us that the sun really did rise as expected on January 1 in Australia. If all goes well, I hope you will be able to purchase a new anthology this coming year with stories by me and Karen. Performing at the event was burlesque dancer Eve Riot. I will note, all the links so far in this post point to the Patreon pages for these amazing artists. I encourage you to visit their pages, learn more about them, and support them if you’re able to!

This has been such a difficult year for many people, but one thing I’m grateful for is the way people have found new ways to use technology to reach out and connect to one another across the globe. Even once the pandemic situation improves and we are able to gather again, I hope we don’t lose all of this ability. I’ve been able to attend events and connect with people I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to otherwise.

On the subject of remote chatter, there has been recent news of a strange radio signal from Proxima Centauri. It’s at a frequency not typically used by spacecraft. It disappeared when the Parkes Radio Telescope moved away from Proxima, then returned when it pointed in that direction again. There is no known astronomical phenomenon that broadcasts at that frequency. Also, there’s a habitable zone planet around Proxima Centauri. I’ve even imagined people living there in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. That said, there’s a good chance this is just an undiscovered natural phenomenon. Still, I find myself wondering if someone out there wants to get on our video chat action. If you want to follow this story, the Planetary Society has set up a page discussing the detection at: https://www.planetary.org/articles/aliens-at-proxima-centauri-a-new-radio-signal-raises-the-question.

Magic, Science, and Vampires

The first time I remember hearing about nanotechnology or nanites was in 1989 in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Evolution.” At the time, I was in graduate school at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology working on a way to use an automated telescope to search for dwarf novae. In the episode, nanites were presented as tiny, self-replicating robots used to repair damaged human cells. It was an interesting idea, but one that seemed very science fictional even to me who was working in the field of robotics. My office at the time was on the fourth floor of a building called Workman Center, which I show below. This was actually the tallest building in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. I had this office by virtue of needing access to microwave transmitters and receivers on the tower that communicated with our automated telescope.

Workman Center as it appeared in the 1980s.

Over the next few years, I encountered nanites in other science fictional venues. One was the fine novel Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams where aristocrats use nanites to build their dreams. Another was Mystery Science Theater 3000 where they’re deliberately presented as a deus ex machina. In all cases, nanites seemed like a concept representing Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.”

I first began to understand the real scientific basis behind nanotechnology in the early 2000s when I learned that nanites would likely not be literal robots, but as self-replicating chemicals that could carry instructions like DNA. The idea was exciting and I could definitely see how such chemicals could have the medical applications imagined in Star Trek in the 1980s. I could also see how such chemicals might be tailored to attack certain metals and armor. This gave me the idea that they might start being used in weapons research. As it turns out, New Mexico Tech is the home of an explosives research laboratory which has been featured several times in the Mythbusters TV series.

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

Back when I worked in Workman Tower on that robotic telescope, my graduate advisor was a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He got his start there in the 1950s, working on the H-bomb project under Edward Teller. Another professor had been a graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who ran the Manhattan Project. Of course, I was familiar with Oppenheimer’s famous paraphrase of the Bhagavad-Gita where he said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Taking all these ideas and putting them together led me to create the physicist Jane Heckman from Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Oppenheimer’s quote brought to mind the history of New Mexico and the little town of Socorro where I lived. Socorro was one of the first places Spanish settlers established a mission when they came into the land that would be the modern United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what if one of those conquistadors who came with the missionaries still lived in the area. If he was a vampire, he would be the embodiment of the phrase, “I am become death.” Jane meeting the vampire Rudolfo became a way for a modern physicist to confront the idea of the death she created by making weapons. By the time I wrote all this, the Workman Center I had an office in had been torn down and rebuilt. Here’s what the new version looks like:

Workman Center Today

This is the building as I describe it in the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Throughout the novel, I continue to explore the idea of science so advanced it begins to look like magic. Jane working with nanites for simple destructive reasons becomes a way to make it seem more likely that someone might use nanites to reprogram cells in human beings. While I can see some wondrous potential in that idea, I can also see the potential for things to go horrifyingly wrong.

You can learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order at: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html

Once More Unto the Breach

On the early hours of March 16, I walked out of the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak, aware that the world had been gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, but thinking I would be back for my next normal shift. After all, a facility like Kitt Peak needs maintenance and care even when things were shut down and my team, the observing associates, were one group standing by to fill that role.

As the following week wore on, plans evolved. The number of people who would be on site would be significantly scaled back. Engineers were ordered to ready the telescopes and instrumentation at the observatory for a long-term shutdown. A very small skeleton staff would come to the mountain to maintain those systems that required attention. My team would work from home.

As it turns out, I had a productive spring and summer. One major job was creating a plan for safe reopening. Unfortunately, right as we started discussions of this plan, cases of COVID-19 began to rise dramatically in Arizona. We made our plan. It was reviewed by upper management and then we waited for cases to go down again. While waiting, I made strides on improving the operations manual for the Mayall 4-meter telescope. Not only did I revise it to discuss updated software for moving the telescope, I took some online courses in Cascading Style Sheets and Javascript and put those skills to use modernizing the look of the manual. It’s even mobile friendly, now, though I suspect that’s a function that won’t get much use! Still, we do have limited wireless in the building and I can imagine a future when people might access the site on phones or tablets.

David at the Mayall

On November 6, I returned to the Mayall telescope. I was the last operator to work during a commissioning run for the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument. I would be the first operator to wake up the sleeping giant and put it through its paces with some pointing and tracking tests. It turned out, after several hot, dry months, we found ourselves with a stormy weekend. Winds gusted as high as 75 miles per hour. We had fog, rain, and even snow. Despite that, we did have a few clear hours. We actually haven’t opened up the main mirror on the telescope. We only used a small pointing camera mounted to the telescope’s side, but it’s good to know the telescope still can point to targets on the sky as it’s designed to. We tracked a few targets for extended times. After my shift finishes, other observing associates will work with the DESI commissioning team to get the spectrograph itself running again. It should not be long before commissioning resumes and hopefully not long after that before the telescope begins regular science.

One thing that has been a challenge, is getting used to working within “bubbles.” As I’ve noted in posts before the shutdown, the telescope operators, DESI scientists, and any needed engineers would gather together in one big control room to do the night’s work. Since I’ve been back, I haven’t even stepped into the new Mayall control room. I’ve done all my work from the old console room, we though abandoned many months ago.

Working in the Old Console Room again.

A lead observer works alone in the new console room and we communicate using conferencing software. My meals are still prepared by the Kitt Peak cafeteria, but they’re delivered to the console room before I arrive. I get to heat them up in the microwave. So my days are mostly going between my dorm room and the console room. In the few times a night I do need to venture forth, I don my mask and check on the radio to make sure I’m not going to get within six feet of another person. It’s a little awkward, but not too different from working with observers who have signed in to work from their home institutions.

All in all, it’s a challenge getting used to this “new normal” while remembering everything required to operate the telescope. Still, it’s good to resume science operations. Shakespeare’s Henry V might look at us getting ready to resume science operations and say: “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start.”

Virtual October

October has been a busy month filled with virtual events. I visited the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club and discussed my novella Revolution of Air and Rust about a week ago. Then, I spent much of this past weekend attending and presenting panels for Denver’s MileHiCon. Like most events in 2020, it was held virtually. While many events I’ve attended have been free, this one had a paid membership option, which allowed attendees to interact with people live as panels were presented. In the case of pre-recorded panels, panelists were often available to answer questions on Discord or the MileHiCon website. My reading for MileHiCon was from my novella Revolution of Air and Rust. I read the chapter where Pancho Villa attempts to raid a United States military camp in Chihuahua, Mexico, but then finds himself transported to another world.

Now that you’ve seen the reading, you may be interested to watch the virtual book club meeting where we discuss the book. This video is hosted at Facebook, but you do not need to be logged into see it.

Although there was a paid membership option, MileHiCon has generously placed most of the panels and presentations online at YouTube, so you can watch them, as with my reading above. This gives you a unique opportunity to watch the panels even if you couldn’t attend them as they premiered. You can find the presentations and panels at YouTube’s MileHiCon 52 virtual channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5Jb4d-cTGK9VkHoAEhePjw/videos

Before the convention, I recorded a presentation about Kitt Peak’s NEID Spectrograph which will be used to look for Earthlike planets around sunlike stars. Of course, when I proposed this presentation back in the spring, I fully expected we would have been observing and would have had results to share. I didn’t expect that we would just now be getting ready to return to observations. Still, I give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the spectrograph, describe how it works, and share some of the interesting results from NASA’s TESS mission.

In addition to my presentation, I participated in a panel discussion about “The Year in Science” with Ka Chun Yu, Will McCarthy, Steve Wahl, and Courtney Willis. Most of us on the panel were physical scientists, with two of us being astronomers, so we started out with a heavy emphasis on astronomy, but Will McCarthy steered the discussion to the year’s COVID-19 pandemic and the effort taken to defeat it and how we’ve learned to work in this year.

I encourage you to go over to the MileHiCon YouTube channel and check out many of the other presentation. You’ll find readings by people like Connie Willis, David Boop, Carrie Vaughn, Walter Jon Williams, Carol Berg, and S.M. Stirling. You’ll find even more science panels and panels discussing science fiction and fantasy writing.

As it turns out, I wrapped up the weekend with a couple additional virtual events. I discovered that YouTube streamed a recording of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds over the weekend. I’m a fan of the album, but this was the first time I actually got to see the entire stage performance. Unfortunately, the performance was only available for a limited time and it’s been taken down, but I was glad for the opportunity to watch. Also, I attended a nice interview with Charlaine Harris conducted by Steven Foley of the Vampyre Library Book Club in New Orleans. This interview is still available, but you have to be a member of the club to watch. Fortunately, membership is free and you can join at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/663608917753704/. My novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order is the featured book at the club for November, so if you join now, you can participate in my interview at the end of next month.

Mars at Opposition

On October 13, 2020, the planet Mars reached a position in its orbit called “opposition” with respect to the Earth. What this means is that the Sun, Earth, and Mars are all lined up so that the Sun illuminates Mars from directly behind us. It actually wasn’t Mars’s closest approach, that happened about a week earlier on October 6. I decided to take advantage of Mars’s opposition to get some photographs.

I used the 8-inch Celestron telescope I received as a high school graduation present in the 1980s. My camera is an Orion Starshoot Eyepiece Camera that takes video. I use free software called Registax 6 to grab frames from the video and combine them into a single, finished image.

The first set of photos I tried were on the night of October 11, just before opposition. It was the most beautiful, clear night I had seen in Las Cruces in a long time. Unfortunately it had been windy during the day, making the atmosphere fairly turbulent. As a result, the images weren’t as clear as I could have hoped. Still, I took two images about an hour apart and was excited to notice that I could see that the planet had rotated from one frame to the next. Note, in the caption below, I use “Universal Time” or “UT” which is based on Greenwich Mean Time. Here in the Southwestern United States, around this time of year, midnight UT happens about an hour before sunset. It can be a convenient way for astronomers to measure time

While preparing for this blog post, I discovered that the website for Sky and Telescope Magazine has a very nice tool that lets you determine the longitude of Mars facing us at a given time of the night. You can find the tool at: https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/interactive-sky-watching-tools/mars-which-side-is-visible/#

With the longitudes in hand, I went back to my handy copy of A Photographic History of Mars: 1905-1961 by E.C. Slipher of Lowell Observatory and found photos of Mars that are similar to the longitudes I show in my photos above. It was gratifying to see my images with an 8-inch telescope compare somewhat favorably with images attained by the Lowell Observatory 24-inch telescope in 1941.

I went back out on the night of October 17, which proved to be a much more stable night. Unfortunately, there were some high clouds, but in my experience, those sometimes stabilize the atmosphere. I took a longer sequence of images and obtained a truly beautiful image of Mars. Just for comparison sake, Sky and Telescope’s calculator says it would be centered on longitude 200 degrees, which is close to the left image above.

Mars at 3:43UT on October 18.

I was very pleased with this last image about five days after opposition. It compares very well with images that were taken at Lowell Observatory on photographic plates. I also noticed that I captured a very small hint of the north polar cap in my photograph.

For fun, I also took images of Saturn and Jupiter both nights. The ones from October 11 aren’t very good, but here are my images from October 17.

Saturn

When I took my image of Jupiter, I wanted a “family portrait” showing the planet with the four Galilean moons that are easily visible in my 8-inch telescope. As it turns out, the human eye has better dynamic range than my Orion Starshoot camera. To photograph the moons, I had to overexpose the planet. So the image below is a little bit of photographic trickery. I took an image to capture the moons, then I took a second image to capture details on the planet. As the two images were taken back to back at the same orientation, I just overlaid one image over the other to get my family portrait. The moons, from left to right are Ganymede, Io, Callisto, and Europa.

A Jovian family portrait.

As I write this, preparations are underway to reopen Kitt Peak National Observatory after it was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once I get back to work, I’ll be working with much larger telescopes and much more sophisticated instrumentation than my 36-year old Celestron and its little video camera. Even so, there’s nothing like sitting out on a dark night, looking across the gulf of space and dreaming of what it would be like to visit the planets in person.

MileHiCon 52

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, I have had many fewer posts about conventions I’d be attending than normal. Some conventions have simply postponed and a few have gone to a limited virtual presence. MileHiCon in Denver, Colorado will be hosting a rather full slate of virtual programming this year from October 23-25. Because of that, you will need to pay to attend, but it is a reduced fee. If you’ve ever wanted to attend a MileHiCon before and travel or time was a limitation, this is a great chance to see what it’s like! You can get the full details and register at: https://milehicon.org/

MileHiCon goes virtual in 2020!

This year, MileHiCon has an exciting slate of authors and artists. The Artist Guest of Honor is a gentleman whose art I have hanging in my office, Alan Pollack. He’s done many covers, but I really love the cover he’d done for omnibus Ride the Star Winds published by Baen Books, which collects several of A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes stories. When Robert E. Vardeman sent me a cover quote for Firebrandt’s Legacy comparing my work to Chandler’s, I decided to celebrate by reaching out to Pollack to see if I could purchase a print of the cover. He happily obliged. I’m sorry I won’t get to meet him in person, but do hope to tune into some of his events.

Virtual MileHiCon also has no less than three author guests of honor: Cory Doctorow, Mur Lafferty, and Rebecca Roanhorse. I’ve read works by all of them that I admire. I’m sure the guests of honor will make MileHiCon well worth the price of admission, but if you’re not convinced there are even more great authors and artists who will be giving presentations, readings, and participating on panels. Among them are two of my cover artists, Laura Givens and Chaz Kemp. Also there will be David Boop, editor of Straight Outta Tombstone and Straight Outta Deadwood. Ian Tregillis, James Van Pelt, Maggie Bonham, and S.M. Stirling will be among the other authors in attendance.

My schedule at the convention is somewhat light, but that was by design. Kitt Peak National Observatory has entered phase 1 of restarting operations and I wasn’t certain whether I’d be able to be available, even virtually, except for pre-recorded events. It now looks like my group will start returning to the mountain the week of October 26, but that’s still subject to change, depending on how engineering tasks go between now and then. At any rate, my schedule for the convention is as follows:

Friday, October 23

12:30pm – Steampunk and Alternate History Reading – I will join Ian Tregillis and Ted Weber to read from our steampunk and alternate history works. I’ll share a chapter from my novella Revolution of Air and Rust.

1:00pm – “To See” New Earths – I will take a look behind the scenes at Kitt Peak’s NEID spectrograph which has been installed at the WIYN telescope and will search for and follow up on observations of exoplanets. I also discuss how the project will help to support NASA’s ongoing TESS mission which is finding exciting new worlds.

Saturday, October 24

1:30pm – The Year in Science – I will join Will McCarthy, Steve Wahl, Ka Chin Yu, and Courtney Willis to discuss some of the highlights and discoveries from this year in science. I’m sure we’ll also be discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted scientific research.

I hope you’ll join us for Virtual MileHiCon. I’ll be “live” at the “Year in Science” panel. The others are pre-recorded, but I’ll attempt to be live to answer any questions that may come up at the time.

Nine to Eternity

I am pleased to announce that a new anthology has just been released featuring my novelette “An Asteroid By Any Other Name.” The anthology is called Nine to Eternity: A Science Fiction Anthology, edited by M.Christian and published by Strange Particle Press.

In M.Christian’s previous anthology, Five To The Future the editor asked respected science fiction and fantasy authors to “write whatever story you want to write. No limits aside from having fun.”

Nine To Eternity: A Science Fiction Anthology takes this idea a fascinating step further, with the editor reaching out to the same authors, plus any friends they’d personally like to invite to the project, to submit “a personal favorite story: one that also, sadly, didn’t get the love they’d put into it.”

And so Ernest Hogan, Emily Devenport, Cynthia Ward, Arthur Byron Cover, as well as M.Christian himself, from the first book are joined by newcomers Ralph Greco, Jr., Jean Marie Stine, the estate of Jody Scott, and myself to make Nine To Eternity: A Science Fiction Anthology a memorable reading experience. 

Full of not just endearing characters, vivid worlds, and thrilling adventures, this anthology is also is a touching examination of what this collection of authors considers their best work. Stories included in Nine To Eternity: A Science Fiction Anthology include:

“Skin Deep,” a wistful science fiction melody of love and longing by Emily Devenport: author of Shade, Larissa, Scorpianne, EggHeads, and The Kronos, plus many other novels and stories.

“Spitzhkov Red,” a haunting tale as real as tomorrow’s headlines of comradeship and service from Jody Scott: author of Passing For Human, I, Vampire, and Devil-May-Care (all published by Strange Particle Press).

“Bombastic Christ,” the controversial story of what happens when DNA from the Shroud of Turin is cloned, written by Ralph Greco, Jr., author of Far Out Within, and who has stories in anthologies such as The Infinite Spectacle: Short Stories of Displaced Reality.

“The Great Mars-A-Go-Go Mexican Standoff,” from the “father of Chicano sf” is a rollicking future-shock interplanetary Chicano delight by Ernest Hogan: author of High Aztech, and Cortez on Jupiter (both published by Strange Particle Press). I loved seeing this story in this book, since I published it in Tales of the Talisman as well!

“A Murder” is a lyrical, but heart-wrenching story of futuristic murder by Arthur Byron Cover author of East Wind Coming, The Platypus of Doom & Other Nihilists, and Autumn Angels (all published by Strange Particle Press).

“Whoever Fights Monsters” is a ferociously powerful reinterpretation of Mina Harker from Dracula written by Cynthia Ward, editor of anthologies like Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West, author of The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, and with stories in magazines like Analog, Asimov’s, and Weird Tales.

“In The Canal Zone” is a dreamlike tale about a mysterious canal whose location may not even lie within our own universe written by Jean Marie Stine editor of numerous anthologies, such as Future Eves: Great Science Fiction by Women About Women, The Legendary Women Detectives: 6 Classic Novelettes, and author of novels including Season of the Witch, and collections like Herstory & Other Science Fictions, and Nowhere To Hide And Other Mystery Stories.

“Why Are There Buildings, Daddy?,” a not-far-from-home work of spec fic about a depressed young man who only ever wanted to be a writer penned by M.Christian: the editor of 25+ anthologies, 12+ collections like Love Without Gun Control, Bachelor Machine, and others. His novels include Me2, The Very Bloody Marys, Running Dry, Finger’s Breadth, and more.

Finally, my story is “An Asteroid by Any Other Name,” a classically inspired tale of rapidly approaching doom. This is a story where I look to my astronomy background as I did when editing the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys and writing my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. I edited and updated the story since it first appeared in the e-zine The Fifth Di… almost fourteen years ago.

You can pick up your own copy of the anthology at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08JHBGTJS/

Perseverance in Space

Last Thursday, I woke up early to watch as NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched. The mission includes the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter drone. The mission’s main goal is to look for signs of ancient life on Mars and collect rock samples which may be returned to Earth.

The launch of the Mars 2020 Mission

The rocket launch itself couldn’t have been more perfect. The weather at the Florida launch site was beautiful and the rocket lifted off the pad, flying straight and true. In fact, it lifted off so quickly, I couldn’t snap the screenshot from my computer before it left the pad! The rover is scheduled to arrive at Mars early next year. It incorporates many design elements from the highly successful Curiosity rover. It also incorporates autonomous driving technology, so NASA engineers can give it a course and let it avoid obstacles using onboard computers. In fact, that’s part of the reason for the helicopter drone. The drone can fly over the surface and help Perseverance map its course over the Martian landscape.

The primary mission objective is to look for evidence that life existed at one time on Mars. There are on-board instruments for achieving this, including the SHERLOC spectrometer which can accomplish microscopic imaging and help search for organic compounds. Perseverance will also collect samples which could be returned to Earth by a future Mars mission. As emphasized when I met Dr. Harrison Schmidt last year, nothing allows for detailed analysis like having actual physical samples in a lab. One of the reasons we would like to know whether life ever existed on Mars is that it would give us a better sense for how easy it would be to find life elsewhere. What’s more, there are some theories that life on Earth actually started on Mars and that it came to Earth as the result of an asteroid collision. So, we could gain insight into our own origins.

I watched the launch as part of an event hosted by The Planetary Society and Space For Humanity. The Planetary Society’s CEO, Bill Nye spoke after the launch. One question I see raised when discussing space exploration is, “wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on problems here on Earth?” This seems especially prescient in the middle of a global pandemic. Of course, you physically can’t invest all the funds on Earth into one problem. That would utterly destroy the economy and leave people hungry and destitute. Nye noted, “All the money we spend on space, is spent on Earth.” Investing in space is paying the salaries of the engineers, scientists, and technicians who make this happen. It’s investing in the companies that build the parts for these craft and that money gets reinvested into the economy. What’s more we receive dividends in these investments such as new technologies that do make the world a better place to live. Those technologies may even help to develop and deliver vaccines.

David the Space Cowboy wants to know when it’s time to board!

Space for Humanity is a group who has a vision of giving as diverse a group of people the chance to experience traveling to space. I believe that’s a worthy goal. After all, we need the experience of many people from many backgrounds if we’re going to reach for the stars. One of the places where we may succeed in getting to space in the near future is from Space Port America, just north of where I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. One of the people who spoke after the launch was George Whitesides, Chief Space Officer for Virgin Galactic, who said their next goal is to accomplish manned flight from the New Mexico spaceport. In the photo above, I’m being a space cowboy, hanging out with one of the Virgin Galactic craft that may actually travel into space from this area. Time to saddle up and move out!

Frightfully Good Deals

The annual Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale is underway. It gets its name because where I live in the northern hemisphere, readers are loading up their e-readers for great beach reading and vacations. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the middle of winter and people are spending time in a warm and cozy place reading. All of Hadrosaur’s titles are available at deep discounts this month and I’ll be highlighting them all month long here at the Web Journal. If you’re looking for a specific title, you don’t have to wait for me to highlight it, just visit http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.php and click on the book you’re interested in. On its page is a link to Smashwords if its available there. The coupon codes for these discounts are automatically applied at checkout. One of the things I love about Smashwords is that they provide ebooks in all popular formats and they’re DRM free, so you can download them to your favorite device.

Today, I’m highlighting two of my horror novels. These are very different. Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires is a historical novel that tells the story of a band of vampire mercenaries who came together during the dark ages. The Astronomer’s Crypt is a contemporary novel about astronomers, drug dealers, Apache spirits, and ghosts colliding on a mountaintop observatory on a terrible night. Pick these novels up now while the price is right and be ready for Halloween!


Dragon’s Fall

Three vampires. Three lives. Three stories intertwined.

Bearing the guilt of destroying the holiest of books after becoming a vampire, the Dragon, Lord Desmond searches the world for lost knowledge, but instead, discovers truth in love.

Born a slave in Ancient Greece, Alexandra craves freedom above all else, until a vampire sets her free, and then, she must pay the highest price of all … her human soul.

An assassin who lives in the shadows, Roquelaure is cloaked even from himself, until he discovers the power of friendship and loyalty.

Three vampires, traveling the world by moonlight—one woman and two men who forge a bond made in love and blood. Together they form a band of mercenaries called the Scarlet Order, and recruit others who are like them. Their mission is to protect kings and emperors against marauders, invaders, and rogue vampires as the world descends into the chaos of the Dark Ages.

Marita Wowod Crandle, author of New Orleans Vampires—History and Legend calls the novel, “A journey into the time of lords, battles, sailing the seas, and vampires. A wonderful escape into historical adventure.”

Buy Dragon’s Fall for just $1.00 this month at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1025606


The Astronomer’s Crypt

Two years ago on a stormy night, in the dead of winter, Mike Teter experienced something that would change his life forever. Mike was a telescope operator at the world renowned Carson Peak Observatory in New Mexico. We won’t tell you what he saw that night on the mountain nor what happened afterward on a dark stretch of highway, because it would haunt you just as it has haunted Mike. But what we will tell you is that Mike is back at Carson Peak. And what he witnessed that night two years ago is about to become a reality…

My novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, is pulled from over twenty years experience operating telescopes at observatories around the Southwest. You can make this journey into the dark side of astronomy for just $1.00 this month at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1025608

Upcoming Solar Sail Missions

Last week, the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 mission celebrated the one-year anniversary of its launch date. The project has made great strides in demonstrating that solar sails are a practical method of propulsion. LightSail 2 was able to raise its orbit using sunlight as the only source of propulsion. The craft can be steered using momentum wheels so it can maximize the light received when moving away from the sun and minimize the light received when going toward the sun. It also set the record for the highest acceleration achieved by a solar sail to date.

LightSail 2 Over Australia. Image by The Planetary Society

As it turns out, the LightSail 2 mission hasn’t been completely trouble free. Two of the solar panels it uses to energize its momentum wheels and power systems like the onboard camera did not deploy correctly and are in a tipped position, so they don’t receive sunlight equally. This is seen in the shadow on the sail in the above image. Also, one of the sail booms appears to be bent. You can see what appears to be a gap in the left hand part of the sail and a structure visible through the gap. My takeaway is that despite these issues, LightSail 2 has done remarkably well.

I was pleased to learn that NASA has an upcoming solar sail mission and it’s investigating another one. The upcoming mission is the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout Mission or NEA Scout. Like LightSail 2, it will be a small solar sail deploying from a CubeSat. It’s currently scheduled for 2021 and the plan is for the craft to visit the asteroid 1991 VG. The larger goal of the mission is to better understand the larger Near Earth Asteroids that might be a threat to life on Earth. Another goal of this mission is to show that solar sails can be used to send scientific payloads to objects at low cost compared to craft that burn conventional fuel. This would be a somewhat larger solar sail than LightSail 2’s 32 square meter area. NEA Scout would deploy a 68 square meter solar sail. In the image below, we see the NEA Scout sail deployed in the lab along with some of the people working on it, to give an idea of the scale.

NEA Scout sail deployed. Image by NASA.

Another mission being considered is NASA’s Solar Cruiser. This would be a 1200 square meter solar sail used to provide views of the sun not easily available with current technology. It would measure the Sun’s magnetic field structure and the velocity of coronal mass ejections which at times can interfere with utility grids on Earth. This craft could be very useful as an advance warning system for at-risk infrastructure on Earth.

The Solar Sea

It’s exciting to see solar sails being scaled up into new projects. There have even been discussions of using solar sails for interstellar missions. A rocket can never go faster than its exhaust velocity. However, a solar sail can continue to accelerate as long as it gets light on its sails. It’s not yet practical to build a solar sail to propel a payload big enough to carry humans, but I suspect if the technology keeps being developed, it will get there one day. This dream is what I captured in my novel The Solar Sea. If you would care to join me on an imaginary voyage through the solar system using one of these sails pushed by light, visit: http://davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html.

Greg Long in Australia recently posted a review of the novel, so I’m especially pleased to have shared the photo of LightSail 2 above. You can read Greg’s review at: https://greole.com/blog/2020/06/review-the-solar-sea-by-david-lee-summers-davidleesummers-sciencefiction/.