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.

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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.


Revisiting Contact

When I visited the VLA a little over a week ago with my wife and daughter, I couldn’t help but note they had copies of both the novel Contact by Carl Sagan and the Robert Zemeckis film based on the novel on prominent display in the gift shop. This is perhaps not surprising given that a large portion of the novel is set at the VLA and a large portion of the movie was filmed there as well. My wife and I decided to pick up a copy of the movie on DVD to replace our aging VHS copy.

It’s been years since I watched the film, even longer since I read the novel, but it was fun to go back and see it again. One element that was fun was the behind-the-scenes look at both Arecebo Radio Observatory and the Very Large Array. This is the kind of behind-the-scenes look I wanted to give people with The Astronomer’s Crypt and also, to some degree, with The Solar Sea. While I’ve never visited Arecebo, I have worked at the VLA and recognized the control room and other places in the control building. It was great to see those places again. One thing I noticed, though, was that in the movie, the astronomers themselves operated the telescopes. In real life, specialists who know the instrumentation actually operate the telescope. Scientists might be in the room analyzing data as it comes in, but even that is somewhat rare. For the most part, I chalk this up to streamlining the storytelling and keeping the number of on-screen characters to a manageable number.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie more on this viewing than I remembered. I like how the movie focuses on the human reaction to alien contact more than the science fictional elements of the actual alien encounter. We see a wide variety of reactions from the general public, to religious figures, to politicians. While we see some paranoia, most of the extreme reactions come from … well, extremists. The acting is fine with Jodie Foster turning in a believable performance as astronomer Eleanor Arroway. I also especially enjoyed seeing Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, head of the National Science Foundation, one of Ellie’s chief critics and ultimately her rival to meet the aliens. Another fun appearance was John Hurt from Alien and Doctor Who as the eccentric billionaire S.R. Hadden who funds Ellie’s experiments.

As I recall, the movie is a generally faithful adaptation of the novel. I was pleased to see that the movie didn’t include one element of the novel I really disliked. I’m not certain how necessary it is to give a spoiler warning for a novel that’s over thirty years old, but just in case, I’ll cover this element in the next paragraph. Skip over it if you haven’t read the book and don’t want the spoiler!

In the novel, Ellie has a stepfather named John Staughton. He’s a university professor who raises her after Ted Arroway dies. It’s ultimately revealed that Arroway is not really Ellie’s father, but that Staughton was her biological father all along. To me, this felt like academic elitism of the worst order. When I read it, it seemed as though Carl Sagan was saying that brilliant Dr. Eleanor Arroway couldn’t really be the daughter of an ordinary working man, but required the genetics of an actual PhD scientist in order to be as smart as she was. Of course, this impression could be unintentional, and it could have resulted from an editor’s suggestion at some point in the revision process to add more drama to the story. That said, it was bad enough, it almost proved a showstopper for me when I read the novel.

One element of the movie that was both fun, yet dates the film was the addition of scenes with President Bill Clinton. On one hand, it adds a certain credibility to the film, but it also sets it indelibly in the past. Of course, that will happen with almost any near-future science fiction and it’s perhaps better to fix it in time than let the older tech in the control rooms and older cars on the streets be the main “tells.”

Ultimately, I think both the novel and film are great in that they provide a look into the mind of Carl Sagan, who long served as an important spokesman for science and astronomy. Like Urania by Camille Flammarion, Contact provides insights into Carl Sagan that his non-fiction alone couldn’t provide. We get to see more of his hopes and fears and even though many of us never got to meet him, we still have the opportunity to know him better.

Sailing the Solar Sea

The Planetary Society was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman in 1980 as a voice in support of planetary exploration. I was in high school at the time and joined soon after it was founded. I remember an article in the society’s magazine The Planetary Report that discussed solar sails as vehicles for planetary exploration. The idea immediately grabbed me and I had an idea for a book about astronauts who traveled aboard a solar sail and made a sort of grand tour of the solar system much as NASA’s Voyager space craft was doing at the time. The novel was to be called Sailors on the Solar Sea. It took over twenty-five years for me to see a draft through to completion and the novel was finally published in 2009 with a shortened title: The Solar Sea. Now in 2018, I’m pleased to announce the release of the second, updated edition.

In the novel, whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

I started the novel soon after my mom bought me my first typewriter. It was a Smith-Corona electric and man that thing was nice. I remember sitting down for a couple of hours every weekend and savoring the hum of the typewriter and the tap-tapping as the ball hit the ribbon. I carefully saved those pages for many years. Jonathan Jefferson goes all the way back to the beginning. Natalie Freeman started as Nathaniel Freeman. I remember finding those early pages sometime in the early 1990s and feeling like there wasn’t enough of a plot to preserve, so I tossed the whole thing out. Around 2000, I made another attempt at the novel. I think I only succeeded in hammering out four chapters. That’s when Myra Lee and the whales came into the story. I grew up in Southern California and visited Marineland as a kid. My first job in astronomy was on Nantucket Island. Long before Captain Kirk saved the whales in Star Trek IV, I’ve been captivated by the idea of whale intelligence.

In 2007, Jacqueline Druga-Johnston, who was then the owner of LBF Books, challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month. I looked at what I had written before and didn’t like the direction I had been going with The Solar Sea, tossed that draft aside, and made a third go at it. In 2007, my youngest daughter was just getting ready to start Kindergarten. I wrote the novel in the evenings after the kids went to bed. I succeeded in writing 50,000 words in a month and felt satisfied that I had, essentially, a complete story. I took the next three months and revised the novel, adding about 13,000 more words and then submitted it to LBF for publication. The novel was published in early 2009. In the subsequent years, LBF was acquired by Lachesis Publishing.

The novel is set in the near future, less than a hundred years hence. Despite that, the novel has mostly aged well and not become too dated, though there were a couple of places where I saw time rapidly encroaching on the novel. Also, in the years since the novel’s release, I’ve continued to learn more about solar sails and realized I could do better. Lachesis, for their own business reasons, didn’t want to invest in a new edition, so when the contract came up for renewal in 2017, I requested a reversion of the rights. The upshot is that I’m proud to announce the release of the newest edition this week.

Although the new edition has been re-edited, I haven’t introduced any new plot points. Readers of the first edition should recognize it as the same novel with just a few updates to the science and technology. One nice new feature is that I worked with artist Laura Givens to create diagrams of the Solar Sail Aristarchus for the book.

Print copies of The Solar Sea are available at:

Ebook copies of The Solar Sea are available at:

Returning to the VLA

One of the reasons I decided to attend the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology was its proximity to the Very Large Array, which at the time, was the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope. In my senior year at Tech, I got my dream job, and spent the year working at the VLA. This past weekend, My wife and I took our daughter out to visit my old stomping grounds.

The VLA was an awesome place to work. As you can see from the photo above, the scenery is dramatic. It’s an alto plano in central New Mexico. In fact, the VLA is at higher altitude than Kitt Peak National Observatory where I currently work. I went out to the VLA site every Friday of my senior year to work. What exciting, groundbreaking science did I do with the world’s largest radio telescope? I observed clouds. Yes, clouds on Earth.

Here’s the thing, at the time the National Radio Astronomy Observatory was looking to build something called the Millimeter Array or MMA. Millimeter Array may not sound very spectacular when you’re talking about the Very Large Array, but the name referred to the frequency of light the telescope would observe. My job was to support the site survey work for the MMA. In other words, we were trying to find the very best place in the world to build the MMA. The reason for observing clouds is because while radio waves can travel through clouds, clouds can cause something called phase instability. With a big telescope like the VLA or the MMA, you can have clouds over one part of the array and not the other. The ideal site is phase stable, meaning you don’t get a lot of variation in the cloud cover across the site.

As it turns out, the MMA was never built. Instead, in 1997, the MMA project in the United States joined forces with the European Southern Observatory’s Large Southern Observatory project. The new project was called ALMA, or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. In 2003, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan joined the project. So, my work at the VLA observing clouds was an early step in the development of ALMA, which is now on the air. You can read about it here: http://www.almaobservatory.org/en/home/

One fun display they had set up at the VLA now was a radio receiver. This actually was one of the radio receivers used when the VLA received data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft at Neptune. I actually watched that data come in at the Array Operations Center in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. On our visit, my daughter and I got to use the receiver to detect radio waves from the sun.

As it turns out, the VLA plays an important role in my novel The Solar Sea. The second edition will be released on the first day of spring. You can learn more and preorder it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHFS2WV/.

Dying to Get to Mars

In the novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter escapes from Apaches in the Arizona desert by going into a mysterious cave where he succumbs to mysterious gasses. Soon afterward, his spirit is transported to Mars where he becomes substantial again and makes a new life as a warlord of Mars. It seems a very odd way of getting to Mars and one that’s probably doomed to failure if you or I were to try it. However, John Carter was not the first literary hero to get to Mars via this unusual method of transportation.

A Princess of Mars was first published in 1917. In 1889, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion published the novel Uranie (or Urania as it’s known in English). In mythology, Urania is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. She’s also the great granddaughter of Uranus, for whom the planet is named. Urania is the muse of astronomy. Camille Flammarion was, for all intents and purposes, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Victorian age. His popular works on astronomy inspired a generation around the world. In many ways, he was a true life astronomical muse.

The novel is told in three parts. In the first part, Urania takes Camille Flammarion on a journey to the stars. She shows him worlds orbiting other stars and the life inhabiting those worlds. He learns that life can come in many different forms. So far, this makes Uranie the oldest novel I know that imagines life on planets outside our solar system. In the second part of the novel, we meet one of Flammarion’s colleagues, George Spero, who is courting a woman from Norway named Icléa. George and Icléa have a long, intense courtship that includes discussions of the nature of thermodynamics, orbital mechanics, and the nature of death. Eventually they travel to Norway to get married. Before the ceremony, George decides to take a balloon to make measurements of the Aurora Borealis. At the last minute Icléa jumps in the balloon with him and off they go.

Alas, part way into the journey, the gas valve breaks and the balloon begins a rapid descent. In order to save George, Icléa jumps from the balloon to the frigid waters of the lake below. The balloon begins to rise and George is saved, but he’s unable to go on without Icléa and jumps out. He misses the lake and hits the ground and the two join each other in death. Sad for the loss of his friend, Flammarion goes to a séance. There he learns that George and Icléa have taken on new forms on the planet Mars. What’s more George is now a woman and Icléa is now a man! This brings us to the end of part two.

Part Three is a combination of essays about telepathy and other unexplained phenomena, how they could be, and a ghostly visit to Flammarion from George where we learn more about the couple’s new life on Mars. I won’t say much more, I’ve given spoilers enough. Still, I found it interesting that death on Earth and rebirth on Mars was not unique to Burroughs in early science fiction. I have no idea whether or not Burroughs was directly influenced by Flammarion, but Burroughs would have been a teenager when Uranie was released in the United States and Flammarion’s work was widely read. It was, after all, Camille Flammarion who inspired Percival Lowell to build an observatory in Arizona to study the planet Mars.

If you’d like to read this interesting, science fiction novel, it’s in the public domain in the United States and available to download from Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41941.

Tucson Festival of Books 2018

This weekend, I’m having fun at Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios in Tucson, Arizona. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by and join the fun. You can find more information at: https://www.wildwestcon.com/.

Next weekend is the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona. It’s a free event running from March 10-11. There are vendors and exhibits spread across the University of Arizona mall. There are also presentations about the craft of writing by many of the top writers working today in the lecture halls near the mall. Among the featured writers are Amy Tan, Dave Berry, J.A. Jance, and Douglas Preston.

I’ll be involved in two presentations at the festival.

Saturday, March 10 – 10am to 11am – Scientists Who Write Science Fiction – Integrated Learning Center Room 141. Jim Doty and I, who are both real-live practicing scientists who use our knowledge to write science fiction, will talk about our process.

Saturday, March 10 – 4pm-5pm – Magical History – Student Union Santa Rita. I’ll be moderating this panel in which Gail Carriger, Beth Cato and Mindy Tarquini, authors of novels filled with magic and mystery will discuss alternative earth histories where magic, the paranormal or time travel are real.

In both cases, I’ll have my books along and can sell and sign them after each of the events. One thing that’s especially exciting about the Magical History panel, is that Beth Cato is a long-time contributor to Tales of the Talisman magazine, so I’ve long followed her work.

As it turns out, I also know Gail Carriger after we did several panels together at Gaslight Gathering in San Diego. Here we are on one of the panels at Gaslight Gathering.

One of the big events the festival is touting is a concert by the group called The Rock Bottom Remainders. They’ll perform on March 10, immediately following the festival’s close. This is a band formed by several bestselling authors. Those members at the festival are Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Gary Iles, Mary Karr, Ridley Pearson, Amy Tan, and Scott Turow. The outdoor concert will be at Jefferson Field. There will be food trucks, a cash bar, and plenty of space to dance!

If you’re in Tucson next weekend, I hope to see you at the Tucson Festival of Books. You can get more information by visiting https://tucsonfestivalofbooks.org/