LepreCon 44

Next weekend, I’ll be on panels at LepreCon 44, which is being held at the Doubletree Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix, Arizona from June 22-24. LepreCon is a small fan-run general fantasy & science fiction convention. The guests of honor include Chesley-Award-Winning Artist, Lubov, novelist, playwright, and graphic novelist, Maxwell Alexander Drake, and Jon Santaana Proudstar who created the first all Native American comic. Another guest is James C. Glass, a retired physics and astronomy professor who won the Writers of the Future Contest in 1991. LepreCon is a smaller science fiction and fantasy convention, but I’ve often enjoyed these types of events because they provide an opportunity to interact with the guests and the fans attending the convention.

My schedule at the convention is as follows.

Saturday, June 23

    Reading – 1-2pm – Consuite. I’ll present a reading from my newest book, Owl Riders and talk about other projects. I’ll also be available to autograph books.

    Is Everyone White? How Do We Approach Skin Color in Fiction? – 7-8pm – Executive Board Room. Do we assume skin tone when we read? How should we describe skin tone when we write? Is it okay not to? On the panel with me are Ernest Hogan, Emily Devenport, and Maxwell Alexander Drake.

Sunday, June 24

    Habitable Extra-Solar Planets: A Reality Check – 9-10am – Latana Room. Being in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water can exist isn’t enough. What are the hazards? On the panel with me is James C. Glass.

    Researching Pasts that Never Were – 4:30-5:30pm – Executive Board Room. Alternate history, steampunk, and weird westerns are often set in pasts that never existed. The panel discusses researching histories that never were. What details can you change? What details shouldn’t you change? At what point are you including too much of your research? On the panel with me are Ernest Hogan, Jamie Wyman, and Tony Padegimas.

Duncan’s Books and More will be selling books in the dealer’s room and should have a selection of my titles. If you’ll be in Phoenix next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at LepreCon!

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New Orleans Book Signing

This Friday, May 25, I’ll be signing copies of my novels, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, The Astronomer’s Crypt, and Owl Riders at Boutique du Vampyre at 709 1/2 St. Ann Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Boutique du Vampyre is a unique store that offers everything from jewelry and apparel to art and dolls to both vampires and mortals who are friends of vampires. My two Scarlet Order novels are clearly right at home at Boutique du Vampyre and I’m proud to be featured on their shelves alongside such authors as Alys Arden and Bruce T. Jones.

While The Astronomer’s Crypt doesn’t feature literal vampires, I’ve long thought of those of us who work all night long at observatories as kindred. We start work at sunset and leave before sunrise. It’s possible to avoid the daylight entirely in the job. Some observatories do have actually have crypts on site, and perhaps it’s not surprising that we hear our share of ghost stories. There are also more than a few mundane dangers that come with working at remote high-altitude locations late at night. The book imagines what happens when ghosts, gangsters, a monster from Apache lore, and astronomers collide during a terrible thunder storm. The Astronomer’s Crypt may not be a vampire novel, but it sits comfortably in their company!

Owl Riders is my latest novel and like The Astronomer’s Crypt does not feature vampires. Much of the novel, though, is set in the New Orleans French Quarter and the character Marie Lalande is a Voodoo practitioner. What’s more the novel’s protagonists, Ramon and Fatemeh Morales, live on the same French Quarter block as Boutique du Vampyre. This will be the novel’s first official book signing and it seems fitting to release it so close to Ramon and Fatemeh’s fictional home.

While getting ready for the signing event, I was going through files on my computer and found a book trailer I’d created for the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order about twelve years ago, but never released. Overall, I felt like it held up. The only problem was that some of the information at the end was incorrect, but I was able to fix that with some judicious editing. So now, the trailer is live on YouTube and you can watch it here.

I created the trailer from illustrations Steven C. Gilberts did for the novel and gave it some film stutter and scratches, so it had the feeling of old vampire films I remember watching, such as Dracula or Nosferatu.

After the signing, I’ll be reading from my vampire novels at Potions Lounge on Bourbon Street. If you come by the signing the staff at Boutique du Vampyre will give you all the details about when to join us. If you’re in New Orleans for Memorial Day weekend, I hope you’ll join us for a truly special event. If you can’t make it, you can order signed books from Boutique du Vampyre by visiting http://www.feelthebite.com.

The Cost of Opening the Crypt…

…just went down! Courtesy of my publisher, the ebook edition of The Astronomer’s Crypt is being offered for the special price of 99 cents for the rest of the month. The ebook normally runs $4.99, so this is a remarkable 80% discount, which means it’s a great time to pick up a copy for your ereader. If you’re already a fan, consider gifting one to a friend!

The Astronomer’s Crypt tells the story of astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from Apache legend colliding at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. As followers of the web journal know, I’m an astronomer who operates telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The observatory is 56 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. The last ten miles of the drive up to the observatory are up a road that winds and twists its way up the mountain. Once you reach the summit, you find a virtual city consisting of twenty-two optical telescopes and two radio telescopes. Even so, after the sun goes down, many of the telescopes on the mountain are automated and some are only operated part time. It’s not unusual for there to be only a handful of people at the observatory at night. That all noted, Kitt Peak is both quite accessible and quite well staffed compared to some astronomical facilities where I’ve worked.

I have worked many nights in my career at observatories where I’ve been one of perhaps two or three people on a remote mountain site. It’s dark. The insides are the buildings are kept deliberately dim so your eyes can adjust if you need to go outside and evaluate sky conditions. In a wilderness situation, wild animals can and do make it inside the buildings. It’s so quiet, you hear every creak and groan of the building. You’re working late at night and you’re tired and not always thinking clearly. You’re trying to focus on the data you’re taking. It’s easy for a person in those conditions to imagine many scary things.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is a book made up of many of those dark imaginings, some of which are not far from the truth. Over the years, I’ve encountered unexpected people at observatories during the night. Fortunately, most have been cooperative and left when asked, but I have wondered what I’d do if I encountered truly bad people. I’ve been to observatories such as Lowell in Flagstaff, where there are real mausoleums on the site, where people who loved astronomy are interred. It’s not hard to imagine ghosts wandering around at those places. I’ve been through many terrible storms, sometimes with sheets of rain pushed by winds in excess of 70 miles per hour. On those nights, nature itself is terrifying. You can get a sense for how all of this combines in the novel by watching the trailer:

Two years before the events of this trailer, 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. I 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 I 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…

You can pick up The Astronomer’s Crypt for just 99 cents at:

A Vampire in Daylight

In my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order, I introduced Daniel McKee, a vampire who works as a telescope operator. In my novels, the vampires often need to find ways to earn incomes since I’ve always been a bit skeptical that it’s easy to stash away vast amounts of wealth given nothing but time. Of course, being vampires, my characters must find night work, which can be a challenge, especially in some professions. Fortunately, Daniel was an astronomer when he became a vampire, so his progression to an all-nighttime position wasn’t difficult.

Daniel is autobiographical only in the sense that he’s a telescope operator. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the Mayall 4-meter is undergoing a major refit. The entire top ring in the picture above will be coming off and replaced with a new top ring that holds 5000 optical fibers which will be used to collect light from millions of objects around the sky. Because the refit is so extensive and so time-consuming, there’s no nighttime work to do on the telescope, so those of us who work as telescope operators have been spending one shift a month supporting the refit operation during the day. I find myself wondering what Daniel would make of that!

In fact, Daniel would probably quit to find an operator’s position elsewhere. Otherwise, he might find work to do that would allow him to remain on a nighttime schedule, such as programming or manual writing. Sadly, Daniel would miss out on a fascinating engineering endeavor and some good camaraderie. In the photo above, the engineering crew is installing a scaffolding that will give them access to the telescope’s top end. However, the scaffolding isn’t just for access. It will help hold the telescope struts in place after the current top ring is removed and before the new one is installed. It will be sturdy to support people and to assure that the telescope will function after this exercise is over.

What’s more, observatories require more than night time staff to function. There is a large contingent of people who work at the observatory during the daytime. They support the infrastructure, such as water services, electricity, and internet. They provide engineering support, keeping the telescopes operational years after construction when original parts are no longer manufactured and the telescope must be upgraded to work with new electronics. This is a great team of people that I unfortunately don’t get to interact with on most nights because they go home right as I’m starting my work day. So it has been great to get to know some of these “unseen” co-workers.

Sadly once you become a vampire, even good people can look like a tasty treat, so perhaps it’s just as well Daniel wouldn’t interact with the observatory’s day staff, but I’m delighted I’ve had the opportunity!

You can read more about Daniel’s adventures in Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html

The adventures of the Scarlet Order before Daniel became a member are featured in Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. Read a sample chapter and learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

I will be signing both of these novels next month on the Friday, May 25 at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans, Louisiana from 3-6pm. That’s the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. I’ll also be doing a special reading from the novels afterwards at Potions, an amazing speakeasy bar nearby. Be sure to drop by the signing to learn more about the reading. Mark your calendars!

Bon Voyage, TESS

This past week, my daughter and I watched live as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched into orbit. This satellite is the follow-up to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which was designed to point to a specific region of space known to have many sun-like stars and get a sense for how many of them have exoplanets. As it turns out, the answer is many! The only problem is that Kepler’s region of interest didn’t include many nearby stars. TESS’s mission is to look at stars close to Earth and see which ones harbor planets. Here’s the video of the launch for those who missed it.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the NEID Spectrograph on the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory where I work will be supporting and following up on TESS observations. This launch is a major milestone in the overall search for exoplanets. I gather it will take about two months for TESS to reach its final orbit. During that time, cameras and instruments will be tested to make sure everything made it through launch with no problems.

The most amazing part of the launch for me was to see how fast TESS made it into orbit, really only a couple of minutes after launch itself. And yet, with current technology, even the nearest exoplanets are still out of feasible travel range for humans. Despite that, I still have hopes that we’ll find destinations that we, as a species, will feel driven to explore. Once we do, I hope we’ll find ways to make the trip happen. In fact, one of the technologies that might allow a voyage to nearby solar systems is scheduled for testing later this year. The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy this summer. I imagine what a voyage through the solar system might be like using such a craft in my novel The Solar Sea.

Of course this is part of the reason that Steve Howell from NASA and I felt compelled to compile the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. They allow us to envision what the worlds we’ve been discovering might be like. They allow us to imagine life in new ways, and even to imagine exciting possibilities for things we could find on worlds that don’t harbor life as we know it. Of course, reality is such that what we discover will no doubt go far beyond what we imagine!

So, once the TESS and NEID teams start finding worlds near the Earth that we can imagine, will Steve Howell and I put together another anthology? I suspect there’s a good chance we will. Whether or not we do, I encourage writers to keep an eye on the discoveries because there will be plenty of inspiration for some cool science fiction stories in the coming years.

Learn more about the Kepler Anthologies and The Solar Sea at:

NEID – A New Way of Seeing Exoplanets

Last week, I talked a little about the work we’re doing refitting the Mayall 4-meter Telescope for the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument. However, it’s not the only construction going on at Kitt Peak. The WIYN 3.5-meter telescope, which I also work with, is getting a new spectrograph installed called NEID. Deploying NEID doesn’t require a full telescope refit like deploying DESI, but there’s still quite a bit of work happening in the building.

Most of the work right now is going into building a new bench spectrograph room. NEID is an acronym for “NN-explore Exoplanet Investigations with Dopler spectroscopy”. The word “neid” is also the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.” An appropriate choice, given Kitt Peak’s location on the Tohono O’Odham Nation in Southern Arizona. The goal of NEID is to provide the astronomical community with a state-of-the-art Doppler spectrograph to investigate exoplanets around nearby stars.

The way this will work is that an optical fiber assembly will be mounted to the telescope itself at the port in the photo to the right with the sign on it. That optical fiber will carry the light from the star to the new bench spectrograph downstairs where it will be spread out, like a rainbow. The reason for doing this is not to see a pretty rainbow, but to see dark lines interspersed through the rainbow. Those dark lines are like the star’s chemical fingerprint.

Now, here’s the fun part. When a planet moves around the star, it drags the star just a tiny amount toward the Earth which causes that spectral fingerprint to shift a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum. When the planet passes behind the star, it drags it away from the Earth and moves the spectral fingerprint toward the red end of the spectrum. Looking for this shift is the “Doppler” approach to finding planets that NEID will employ.

In addition to discovering new planets, NEID will be used to follow up observations by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and will help to determine masses and densities for planets TESS discovers. By the way, the NN-Explore that’s part of NEID’s acronym stands for NASA-NSF-EXoPLanet Observational REsearch. The current plan is to begin commissioning the instrument this fall and for regular observations to commence in 2019.

Being part of on-going research into planets around other stars is what inspired Dr. Steve Howell of NASA’s Ames Spaceflight Center and I to invite science fiction writers to imagine what these planets around other stars might be like. The results were our two anthologies, A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. You can learn more about the anthologies by clicking on their titles.

Once NEID goes online and starts making discoveries, Steve and I may have to “see” into the future and collect a third anthology. This time, including stories about planets discovered by a telescope on a mountaintop in Arizona’s Tohono O’Odham Nation.

Refitting the Mayall: Teardown

I was in 8th grade when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out. One of the things that fascinated me in that movie was the refit of the Starship Enterprise. I was captivated by how the ship looked at once much the same and yet completely different. It looked sleeker and more powerful and familiar space on the ship such as the bridge, sickbay, and the transporter room had all been updated. I’m getting to experience something much like the Enterprise refit in real life. In this case, I’m involved in refitting the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Like the Starship Enterprise, the Mayall has a forty-five year history of discovery. Originally built to use photographic plates, the telescope has played an important role in such discoveries as establishing the role of dark matter in the Universe from measurements of galaxy rotation, and determining the scale and structure of the Universe. Over the years, new instrumentation has been added to the telescope including advanced digital cameras and spectrographs.

The purpose of the refit is to install a new instrument called DESI, which stands for Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. 5000 optical fibers will be installed at the telescope’s prime focus (the top end of the telescope) and run to cameras in another room. The goal is to observe tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a three-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years.

In order to achieve this goal, the entire top end of the telescope has to be replaced and much of the control software and electronics are being redone so that it’s truly state of the art. To achieve this goal, we literally have to gut the telescope and install new components from the inside out. During my most recent shifts at the telescope, I’ve been involved in just that. In the photo to the right, you can see that the bottom of the telescope is missing and replaced with scaffolding. That’s because the large 4-meter mirror is out for recoating. Also, all the optics are missing from the secondary mirror assembly at the top of the telescope. Ultimately, that will be removed completely and replaced with a new secondary ring. The men in the photo are removing a counterweight assembly used to precisely balance the telescope when instruments are added and removed. Electrical panels are open on the side of the telescope where control cabling going back to the photographic days will be removed and replaced with new control cabling. Modern electronics mean the telescope will have about 10% of the cables as it did when originally built!

The refit has also allowed me a rare opportunity to see parts of the telescope I’ve never been to before, even after operating it for some thirteen years. Earlier this week I got to help the electronics technicians work on some cabling in the “horseshoe.” That’s the big, blue horseshoe-shaped mount you see in the photos above. We actually ended up working down in the broad, blue, oval-shaped tube you see in the photo just above. I dubbed it the sinking submarine, because it’s a cramped space and we were standing at a 32-degree angle relative to the ground!

It’s going to be exciting to watch the telescope take shape again after the teardown process. New parts will be arriving in the coming months. A large crane will be deployed outside the 4-meter to lift out the old secondary ring and bring in the new one. The plan is to be back on sky to test components of the new instrument later this year. Once those tests are completed, other components will be finished, revised if needed and then installed. At that point, the Mayall’s new five-year mission to map the universe will begin.