Contreras Wildfire and Kitt Peak

Over the years working at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve seen several fires from the domes at the summit. A few of these fires have even approached close enough to create nail-biting situations where we prepared to evacuate the site. However, a little over a week ago, a fire burned right up to our facility. As an operator on the Mayall 4-meter and WIYN 3.5-meter telescopes, I’m tasked with facility and personnel safety after hours. So, this means I was keeping a close eye on the fire up until the point we had to leave Kitt Peak.

While driving up to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory on Saturday night, June 11, I passed through the small town of Three Points, Arizona and noticed an orange glow on the ridge between Kitt Peak and Baboquivari Peak. I gritted my teeth, afraid I was seeing the beginnings of a fire. I hoped I was wrong. I’d hoped someone had installed a radio tower with an orange light between the town and the mountain, but soon after I started driving up the Kitt Peak road, my hopes were dashed. I soon saw a fire burning off in the distance. At that point, I wasn’t terribly worried, I’d seen fires in that part of the range before and the Tohono O’Odham fire department usually knocked them out within a couple of days. When I reached the summit, I checked in with the duty operators, let them know I’d arrived on site and confirmed they had seen the fire and that officials knew about it. Since it had been visible from a nearby town, I figured they did, but it’s always good to check. By all accounts, the fire started from a lightning strike earlier that evening.

Unfortunately, the southwest has been suffering a drought which has now lasted over 20 years and vegetation was extremely dry. However, the wind was calm and blowing away from the observatory, so when I started my shift on Sunday, June 12, we were able to work with the fire burning off in the distance and smoke blowing away from us. As it turns out, the WIYN telescope, where I was working, had a problem with its optical system. A vacuum system which keeps the heavy mirrors off the hard mounting points had failed, causing minor distortion. We were taking spectra, so this problem didn’t keep us from working, but it needed to be fixed, so on Monday, June 13, our optical engineer began the process of removing the secondary mirror from the telescope to investigate the problem. This is a big job and it couldn’t be completed in one day, so my primary job that night was to monitor the fire’s progress and make sure the wind didn’t shift to blow over the observatory. Here’s a look at the fire shortly after sunset.

View toward Baboquivari Peak on June 13, 2022

On Tuesday, while I slept, it became apparent that the fire was a big enough danger that steps should be taken to make the site as safe as possible. Engineers began shutting down less critical systems and making things as safe as possible. The wind shifted that afternoon and more smoke began coming toward the site. When many people imagine an observatory, they might imagine anywhere from one to six telescopes on a remote mountain summit. It may help to understand that Kitt Peak National Observatory is the world’s largest observatory campus with over twenty telescopes. There are, in fact at least six dormitory buildings along with several houses, kitchen facilities, a full maintenance yard including automotive shop, water treatment facility, backup generators and so forth. Like many college campuses, Kitt Peak is almost like a small town in its own right. So lots of people were at work all across the site through the day. That evening, I had a briefing from the Kitt Peak director. Because of the smoke, telescopes would be closed that night. Smoke can damage optics. As the night started, I went up to the Mayall telescope and took a photo from the visitor gallery. Only a little of the fire was visible from that vantage, looking like a string of lights on the mountain in the background, just to the right of the left-most dome. Still, this gives you an idea of how close the fire was getting.

Contreras Fire on the night of Tuesday, June 14

The wind picked up the night of June 14 and the fire seemed to pick up strength. As you can see in the first photo, there was a small ridge line between us and the fire. By the morning of June 15, the fire crested that ridge and I wondered how much longer we would remain on site. Here’s what it looked like on Wednesday morning.

Contreras Fire on the Morning of June 15.

I went to bed, knowing someone would wake me if we needed to evacuate. I woke up and attended two administrative meetings. From my room, I could already tell there was much more smoke in the air by Wednesday afternoon. As soon as the meetings were finished, I went to the WIYN telescope. From that vantage, I saw that the fire had progressed dramatically. A wall of smoke rose from just below the mountain summit and I could see flames just over a mile away. I went into the observatory and learned that a controlled shutdown of as many systems as possible was underway. I helped where I could. Among other things, I helped to carry one piece of instrumentation down to an engineer’s car so it could be transported off the mountain safely. Firefighters began arriving on the mountain. One of them warned us a plane was about to drop a load of fire retardant and we should move our vehicles so they would be damaged when that much water and retardant came down onto the mountain. We did as directed and soon afterward I was called into a meeting in the director’s office. While in that meeting, the incident commander gave us the order to evacuate. I went to my dorm room, packed up as much as I could and went to my car. I was off the mountain within about half an hour.

Because my home is in New Mexico, the observatory management put me up in a hotel room in Tucson that night. I hoped we would be evacuated, the firefighters would hold the line on the fire and I would return in a night or two. Still I had an uneasy feeling as I walked back to my hotel room after dinner that night. Here’s the view of the hotel. What looks like clouds low in the sky is smoke from the Contreras wildfire.

Smoke from the Contreras Wildfire, visible from Speedway Blvd in Tucson, Arizona

On Wednesday night, I watched the fire on the mountain webcams from my hotel room. Part of my job is accounting for the night’s use so it can be reported to the National Science Foundation. I filled out my reports. Thursday night was more of the same. On Friday morning, I filled out my report, but soon after, computers at the observatory went dark. A little while later, I learned that utility power had gone out on the mountain and we’d lost the internet connection. The fire had reached the summit.

I went home on Friday, but have continued to follow the news. The firefighters did a tremendous job. No scientific buildings were lost. As far as I’ve heard, only four support structures were consumed by the fire. It helped that almost all the buildings at Kitt Peak are constructed of concrete, steel, and brick. Since Saturday, the fire has been contained, but access to the Kitt Peak summit is still strictly regulated for safety. As soon as its safe, engineers and facility teams will begin the process of inspecting the site. They’ll see how much smoke and ash infiltrated the domes. They’ll see if there’s been heat damage. They’ll make sure we have reliable power and internet. Once that’s done, it’ll be time to see if the telescopes and instrumentation can be brought back on line and repair things as needed. It’ll be a process and it’ll take time. Still, I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to the firefighters who jumped in and kept the facility as safe as possible so that we actually can look forward to resuming operations. They did tremendous work and I look forward to resuming science at Kitt Peak in the not-too-distant future.

Exploring Strange New Worlds

A little over two weeks ago, I was a panelist and vendor at El Paso Comic Con. I had a great time at the convention. Tamsin Silver and I hosted three writing panels. On two of the panels, we asked another attending author, Alan Morgan, to join us. The panels were the best-attended writing panels I’ve seen at El Paso Comic Con. We spoke about “Researching Your Fiction,” “Getting to Know the Characters in Your Head” and “From Weird Westerns to Space Opera.” The first two panels were focused very much on the process of writing. We discussed how research is important whether you’re writing historical fiction, space opera, or even fantasy set in a world of your own creation. At the very least you need to know how things work so you can describe them realistically. The character panel focused on how we can pull from people all around us to create characters. Alan brought a great perspective to both of these because he writes games as well as fiction. The final panel, “From Weird Westerns to Space Opera” essentially brought the themes of the other two panels together by considering how the process of creating all speculative genres share common elements.

It was appropriate to discuss space opera at the convention, since one of the featured guests was none other than William Shatner. My wife and I got to meet him briefly for a photo op. Unfortunately, these photo ops don’t give much opportunity to interact, but we did exchange pleasantries and I have heard Shatner speak on other occasions.

William Shatner, David Lee Summers, and Kumie Wise

Now I will confess, I did Photoshop this image slightly. Since everyone was unmasked for the photo, they placed us a few feet from Mr. Shatner. I simply closed up the gap to give the photo a more friendly feel. One thing that was fun about meeting Shatner when we did was that it came just before the debut of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds which features a character first portrayed by none other than William Shatner.

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed my reluctance to subscribe to streaming services. However, I’ve been looking forward to Strange New Worlds for a while and I decided I didn’t want to wait for the video release. Overall, I enjoyed the first episode and I look forward to seeing how it plays out. For those who haven’t seen it, this new Star Trek is set aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise roughly six years before Captain Kirk takes command. The Enterprise is commanded by Captain Christopher Pike played by Anson Mount. His First Officer is Una Chin-Riley played by Rebecca Romijn and his science officer is Mr. Spock, played by Ethan Peck.

Ethan Peck and David Lee Summers at WIYN

The episode opens when a starship approaches a planet to make first contact. We then cut to a scene in Montana where Captain Pike is on leave between missions while the Enterprise is undergoing refit. Admiral Robert April turns up and informs him that the first contact mission went awry. What’s more, that mission was being commanded by Una. So, the Enterprise must leave on its mission early to find out what happened. Robert April is a character we first met in the animated Star Trek series where he was introduced as the captain of the Enterprise before Pike. I won’t say much more at this point because I don’t want to risk spoilers. One of the things I did find interesting about the episode was that it posited the idea of the warp drive being weaponized. Tying this back into the discussion of the El Paso Comic Con panels, one thing that came up back in the 1990s when I was first researching engines and plausible methods of faster-than-light travel, was how often new power sources can be weaponized, which led to the dual concepts of Quinnium weapons and the Erdon-Quinn drive in The Pirates of Sufiro. You can see the results my research along with an array of colorful characters by reading the novel, which is available at: http://davidleesummers.com/pirates_of_sufiro.html

Another fun element of the new Star Trek series was getting to see more of Ethan Peck’s work. As I’ve mentioned before, he visited the WIYN telescope on my birthday in 2019 as we were commissioning the NEID Spectrograph, which actually looks for strange new worlds around other stars. I am glad to be part of a team that’s paving the way for a Star Trek-like future and I think it’s very cool that one of the actors in the series has actually seen some real exploration of strange new worlds.

Cosmic Cartography

When plotting out my stories, I spend a lot of time looking at maps. This can be especially useful when writing historical fiction. Boundary lines change and even physical features can change because of human activity or natural phenomena such as earthquakes. Also, maps reveal the limitations of those who made them. Before the modern era, mapmakers didn’t have satellites to define coastlines or mountain ranges. People on the ground had to do their best to measure and calculate distances and translate those into maps.

While working on the DESI survey at Kitt Peak’s Mayall survey, I feel a little like one of those early cartographers. Of course, our job is to measure the distance to as many galaxies as we possibly can and make a map of the known universe. As it turns out, I’m not alone feeling this way. Graduate Student Claire Lamman at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was inspired to create an illustration in the form of an antique map called Cosmic Cartography. You can see the artwork in detail and read about it at a post Claire wrote for the DESI blog at https://www.desi.lbl.gov/2021/08/19/cosmic-cartography/

Recently, my wife celebrated her birthday. Like me, she enjoys old maps and she also enjoys challenging puzzles, so I gave her a 1000-piece puzzle of the Cosmic Cartography artwork.

Cosmic Cartography Puzzle

Not only am I reminded of cartographers from long ago who made maps, but I’m reminded of science fiction stories where starships on patrol had the job of making maps. Of course, such starships require a team of highly trained people and one of the great ways to build teamwork is to have a set of common logos. In science fiction, these often take the form of badges or patches on uniforms. In my world, these might be stickers on laptops, T-shirts or ball caps. With that in mind, the DESI team actually created a place where you can order these kinds of items. One of the items is a poster of Claire’s Cosmic Cartography artwork, which can be ordered as a jigsaw puzzle, which inspired the present for my wife. If you want to show your support for our project mapping the universe, you can find all the cool DESI Swag at the project’s Redbubble shop: https://www.redbubble.com/people/DESIsurvey/shop

As it turns out, the puzzle was a bit more of a challenge than some other similar puzzles my wife and I have done. Redbubble is a print on demand company and the puzzle was printed on somewhat thin cardboard and the jigsaw cuts didn’t have a lot of variation, so it was possible for pieces that didn’t belong together to attach better than they should. Still, my wife and I persevered and assembled the puzzle. It was fun to discuss the different elements of the artwork. Some notable elements are the Mayall telescope and dome and an area of the map itself representing the MzLS survey, which I helped with. There’s a circle showing the Sloan Digital Sky Survey map. I was at that telescope’s dedication ceremony in the 1990s. There’s even Baoban, the DESI coyote. The coyote gets his name from two sources. BAO stands for Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations, which is the science which allows us to accurately determine distances to galaxies and “Ban” which is the Tohono O’Odham word for coyote.

Working on the puzzle proved a good opportunity to both spend some time with my wife and to reflect on the talented and bright group of people I’m privileged to work with.

Space Pirates’ Legacy Complete

In May 2017, the rights to my “Old Star Saga” novels reverted to me. Upon getting the rights back, I decided to add a new first novel, revise and update the existing novels, and rebrand the series as “The Space Pirates’ Legacy.” After almost five years, this project is finally complete. Today, I’m proud to announce the release of book four, Heirs of the New Earth.

Heirs of the New Earth

The Earth has gone silent. John Mark Ellis and the crew of the Sanson are sent to investigate. When they arrive, they find vast alien machines known as Clusters in orbit. Fearing the worst, they land and discover that the once overcrowded, polluted Earth has become a paradise of sorts. The problem is over half the population is dead or missing and the planet’s leaders don’t seem to care. As Ellis works to unravel the mystery, sudden gravitational shifts from the galaxy’s center indicate something even worse is in the offing. Can Ellis save the galaxy from the heirs of the new Earth?

I wrote The Pirates of Sufiro in 1993 while living in Tucson, Arizona. Once I finished, I knew I wanted to write a sequel, and perhaps turn the series into a trilogy. The novel ends with John Mark Ellis, grandson of space pirate Ellison Firebrandt, wanting to pursue a mystery. An alien intelligence called the Cluster had invaded the galaxy. At the end of The Pirates of Sufiro, Ellis had no idea whether the Cluster was a ship or a life form in its own right. He knew the Cluster was dangerous and it destroyed starships, but he had no idea whether the danger was intentional or accidental. If the Cluster was a life form in its own right, could it understand that human ships were vessels with intelligent beings aboard? I knew Ellis would want to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Around the same time as I started thinking about the sequel, a team of observers were at the Mayall telescope using the Infrared Imager we had at the time to take images of the center of the galaxy. During that run, I watched as they captured the deepest image of the galactic core taken to that point. Since then, we’ve taken even deeper and more stunning images, but I was still mind-blown. I remember discussing what one would find at the center of the galaxy with the astronomers in the control room. We talked about the black hole in the center of the galaxy.

As we spoke, an image flashed to my mind. I imaged John Mark Ellis aboard an old-fashioned sailing ship at the center of the galaxy. I knew the rest of the series would tell of the story of how Ellis ended up on that sailing ship in that place. All I knew at the time was that somehow the Cluster was involved. Laura Givens’ cover art for the new edition, captures the image I’d conjured perfectly and I hope it makes you wonder how he got there. And this image isn’t a red herring. Not only does it reflect an image I had way back in 1993, it depicts an important scene from the heart of the novel.

The novel has just gone live in print and ebook formats and will start wending its way through the distribution chain soon. That said, you can pick up the print edition of the novel today at Amazon.com. The ebook is available in Kindle format at Amazon.com. It’s also available in a wide variety of additional formats at Smashwords.com. As always, you can find all the retailers I know who are carrying the book on the book’s page at my site: http://davidleesummers.com/heirs_new_earth.html

Confronting Change

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed working with the Hydra spectrograph on the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. It’s a piece of instrumentation that allows astronomers to observe up to 90 objects simultaneously during one telescope pointing. The WIYN telescope can see one square degree of the sky at a time. Hydra has a set of optical “buttons” which can be placed on a metal plate at the position where an object will be in the field of view. These buttons send data to the spectrograph two floors below via fiber optic lines. The device that places these buttons is a robot, which resembles the claw from crane machine. It picks up each button from a parked position and puts it where it belongs.

Sticker on Hydra’s side

This type of multi-object spectrograph is somewhat common now, but Hydra was one of the first of these types of spectrographs built in the early 1990s. In fact, the instrument is older than the WIYN telescope and I helped to commission the instrument in its first version at the Mayall 4-meter. Precision machines like the Hydra gripper suffer a lot of wear and tear in 30 years, so a little over a year ago, Hydra began an upgrade process. The engineers worked with Prod Design and Analysis in El Paso, Texas to upgrade the gripper with new technology. The folks at Prod were struck by how much the gripper resembled a crane machine’s claw and added the sticker you see in this first photo.

Hydra Control Rack

As you might imagine, I’ve become quite familiar with Hydra, working with it off and on for almost thirty years. However, making major changes to the instrument meant learning new procedures. The original Hydra gripper was an analog device that “knew” where buttons were by counting steps using a device called an encoder and then remembering those steps to go back and pick the button up again. If there was some electrical noise or a mechanical problem that caused the count to be less precise, it could miss picking up the button. The upgraded Hydra also uses encoder counts, but it has added new programmable logic controllers and video analysis. It goes to the button, takes a picture, analyzes that pictures and then adjusts it’s position, if needed, to get the button. All this new logic has meant that we have a new control cabinet in the telescope to house electronics. The hope is that this will make positioning more accurate. However, it has meant learning new ways to monitor the process of the gripper at work and recovering the gripper if problems occurred.

This past week was one of the first times I’ve had to use the upgraded Hydra without one of the engineers on hand in case problems occurred. I made sure to review the manual, because it had been several months since my introduction to the upgrades and I reviewed the troubleshooting procedures. The first night of observing started out quite smooth. We had four field setups without any problem whatsoever. Then on the fifth field configuration, a heart-stopping problem occurred. The Hydra control program crashed while the gripper was carrying a button to a new position. Of course, these buttons and their attached fibers are all very delicate and if Hydra forgets the button’s position, there’s a risk that the attached fibers could get tangled. This could prove to be a very expensive problem.

In the old days, a problem like this automatically meant going into the dome, which is a cold proposition on a winter night! Then with a long stick , carefully reaching into the instrument and releasing the button from the gripper jaws, which allow you to open the instrument. After that, you’d have to manually place this fragile, optically sensitive button and fiber back into its stow position. In short, it’s a delicate procedure to do when you’re cold and on a lift in a dark dome!

The new Hydra Handpaddle

Now we have a handpaddle, which lets us talk to the gripper directly. I went to the Troubleshooting guide, refreshed my memory and followed the instructions. For the most part they worked. I was able to control the gripper and set the button down in a controlled way. Unfortunately, we’re still working out some bugs, so I still had to open Hydra and check the button’s real position, but it was a much quicker, safer operation.

Confronting change in procedures that had grown familiar and routine was definitely scary and a little challenging. The things that helped me manage my discomfort were focusing on the familiar parts of the routine, reviewing the new procedures before starting work, and then when a problem did happen, I took a deep breath and used the instructions and my experience to solve the problem the best I could. This past week, the upgraded Hydra moved from a machine that presented me with a little anxiety to a machine I look forward to understanding better.

Breaking Records

It occurred to me it’s been a while since I’ve shared a behind-the-scenes look at my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Now that the DESI spectrograph is on the Mayall Telescope and the NEID spectrograph is on the WIYN Telescope, we’ve fallen into a fairly regular routine where, most nights, I check in with the observing team at 4pm via video chat, then go to the control room where I’ll eat dinner, open the telescope and start observing through the night. We wrap up as the sun starts lightening the sky in the morning. Targets for the night are predetermined before observing begins for the night. Once observing begins, much of my job is watching that the telescope doesn’t try to move to a position where it physically can’t and I’m the first line of defense in case the telescope or instrument malfunctions. I also watch the weather to make sure rain, wind, or snow don’t damage the telescope.

A slice through the 3D map of galaxies from the first few months of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI). The Earth is at the center, with the furthest galaxies plotted at distances of 10 billion light years. Each point represents one galaxy. This version of the DESI map shows a subset of 400,000 of the 35 million galaxies that will be in the final map. Image courtesy NOIRLab.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we expected that both the telescope operator and lead observer for the night would be working in the same room, possibly with some support scientists. As it turns out, I wrote a post recently describing how these plans had to change so we could operate safely in these times. As things currently stand, I work in a control room alone and coordinate with the rest of the team via video conference. You can read that post here: https://www.desi.lbl.gov/2021/11/17/social-distancing-while-mapping-the-universe/

All this steady plugging away, observing the sky night after night with DESI is paying off. It was just announced that after just seven months of operation, DESI has already surpassed 7.5 million galaxies mapped, which means it has already generated the largest 3D map of the universe to date. And we’ve only completed about 10 percent of the survey. When we’re done, we expect to have mapped over 35 million galaxies. The picture with the post is a slice of the map so far. The map is presented such that Earth is at the center. Each point on the map is a galaxy. I encourage you to take a look at the press release about the DESI results so far. It’s at: https://noirlab.edu/public/news/noirlab2203/

One of my favorite images at the press release is an interactive image where you can look the map above and compare it to all the data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in New Mexico. Sloan has been an on-going, ground-breaking project in its own right. I was fortunate enough to be on hand when that telescope was dedicated and the survey began. At the time, I worked as an engineer for a 1-meter telescope just a few yards away from the Sloan at Apache Point Observatory. I think it’s fair to say that DESI would not have been able to achieve what it has so far if Sloan hadn’t paved the way.

As it turns out, DESI’s value isn’t limited to creating a big map of the universe. Yes, that’s important and hopefully it’ll give astronomers clues about how the universe is expanding and how that may be related to this thing called dark energy. However, DESI is also creating a giant database of all these spectra that researchers will be able to use for years to come to understand more about the different types of galaxies and quasars we’re observing along the way.

On a good night up here, everything seems quiet and routine, which doesn’t give me a lot to share here, but it is producing lots of data and expanding our knowledge of the universe. Of course, routine nights also give me a chance to ponder the universe and continue to inspire me. As always, you can find links to my books and stories at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Hot Anthologies for Cold Winter Nights

The annual Smashwords End of Year Sale is underway. All of Hadrosaur’s titles are on sale and I’ll be highlighting many of them over the course of the sale here at the Web Journal. 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 or gift them to friends without worrying about what e-reader they prefer. If you are shopping for a friend, just click “Give as a Gift” when you visit the Smashwords links!

Today, I’m featuring some great anthologies for those times when you want to curl up by a fire and enjoy an author’s work in one sitting.


Exchange Students

In Exchange Students you can study abroad! See new places! Meet new people!

In our exchange student program, you can literally study anywhere or anywhen you can imagine. We’ll send you to new planets. We’ll send you to new dimensions and realms of existence. We’ll send you through time itself!

Don’t believe me? This exciting anthology contains many tales of our thrilling and educational exchange student program. You’ll read tales of aliens coming to earth and humans traveling to alien worlds. You’ll meet a denizen of Hell who travels to Heaven. Some students will discover their super powers on their journey. Other students will have encounters with the undead. You’ll meet a law enforcement officer who travels to the realm of the fae to help solve a crime of truly interdimensional proportions.

Featuring twenty-two amazing stories by Roze Albina Ches, Jaleta Clegg, Ken Goldman, Paula Hammond, Sheila Hartney, Chisto Healy, Joachim Heijndermans, Sean Jones, Tim Kane, Alden Loveshade, Tim McDaniel, J Louis Messina, Jennifer Moore, Brian Gene Olson, David B. Riley, Katherine Quevedo, Holly Schofield, Jonathan Shipley, Lesley L. Smith, Emily Martha Sorensen, Margret A. Treiber and Sherry Yuan

Exchange Students is available for half off the cover price at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1005851. Coupon code SEY50 should be applied automatically at checkout.


A Kepler’s Dozen

A Kepler’s Dozen is an anthology of action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Edited by and contributing stories are David Lee Summers, author of The Pirates of Sufiro, and Steve B. Howell, project scientist for the Kepler mission. Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, thirteen exoplanet stories written by authors such as Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets.

“… the stories represent a glimpse of where science fiction might go if real exoplanets are taken as inspiration.” Melinda Baldwin, Physics Today

You can buy A Kepler’s Dozen for half off the cover price at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/325583. Coupon code SEY50 should be applied automatically at checkout.


Kepler’s Cowboys
  • NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered thousands of new planets.
  • Visiting, much less settling, those worlds will provide innumerable challenges.
  • The men and women who make the journey will be those who don’t fear the odds.
  • They’ll be Kepler’s Cowboys.

Saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. Meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. Fight for justice in a lawless frontier. Go on a quest for a few dollars more. David Lee Summers, author of the popular Clockwork Legion novels, and Steve B. Howell, head of the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center, have edited this exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology of fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, L.J. Bonham, and many more!

“If you’re in the mood for science fiction that’s heavy on the science, pore over this enjoyable collection that takes exoplanets and the American West as its inspirations. The stories and poems in Kepler’s Cowboys imagine wild and risky futures for the first generations of exoplanet explorers as they grapple with harsh environments, tight quarters, aliens, and one another.” Melinda Baldwin, Physics Today.

Kepler’s Cowboys is available for half off the cover price at Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/698694. Coupon code SEY50 should be applied automatically at checkout.


Already read these, or just want to browse for something different? Every single Hadrosaur Productions ebook at Smashwords is on sale through January 1. Find the complete listing at: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/davidleesummers.

Remembering Anne Rice

Two of my treasured Anne Rice volumes

I was saddened over the weekend to hear about Anne Rice’s passing. Her writing entertained me, provided food for thought, and even inspired me. I’m afraid I never had the opportunity to meet her in person, but I was fortunate enough to find a signed copy of Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis at the Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans a few years ago and while I’ll admit it’s not my favorite entry in the Vampire Chronicles, it’s still a treasured part of my collection. In the photo with my signed copy is another treasured part of my book collection. It’s an early copy of Interview with the Vampire. I especially like the back cover where actors posed as Lestat, Louis, and Claudia.

I discovered Anne Rice’s writing in the early 1990s while working at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Those of us who worked nights at the telescope were often referred to as the vampires of the observatory because we generally weren’t seen when the sun was up. One of my fellow telescope operators was a fan of Anne Rice and encouraged me to give Interview with the Vampire a try. At the time, boxed sets were widely available with all the Vampire Chronicles in print at the time, which were Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, and Tale of the Body Thief. I breezed through all four novels in rapid succession. I especially enjoyed Rice’s take on the vampire as protagonist and even misunderstood hero. Soon after reading the books, I read an interview with Rice and learned that she wrote Interview with the Vampire as part of dealing with the grief of the loss of her daughter. Having lost my father at a young age, I’d long been oversensitive to the notion of my own mortality and I began to think about what I would do if I ever decided to create a vampire hero.

Those thoughts coalesced just a few short years later when I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico and a friend wondered what a vampire would make of “the City of Crosses.” This led me to my first vampire short story. After a few more, I felt I understood my characters well enough to write the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

Of course, even as I wrote, Rice continued to write. Her next Vampire Chronicle was Memnoch the Devil. One of the things that began to appeal to me about vampire stories was how you could view large swaths of history from a single character’s point of view. In the fifth vampire chronicle, not only did Rice look at Biblical history but considered theology through Lestat’s vantage point. I’ve never quite questioned my faith in the ways that Rice questioned her own, but I have had questions about my faith and the interplay of that faith with dimly viewed moments in history, such as Arthurian legend. Her open and frank approach to Memnoch the Devil would inspire me when I wrote Dragon’s Fall, the prequel to Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

I’ve continued to enjoy Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles and other novels. I wrote some reviews of her later novels, which I was pleased to see her share on social media. While I’m sorry I never had the opportunity to meet Anne Rice in person, I’m glad to have been able to share how her work had touched me. While I thought some of her novels were much stronger than others, all of her novels entertained me. I’ve been starting to think about a third Scarlet Order vampire novel. I’m sure Rice’s works will continue to speak to me as I think and plot and plan. Like her own hero, Lestat, I’m pretty sure Anne Rice will live forever.

Neutrinos and the Day After Tomorrow

In Episode 178 of the Gerry Anderson Podcast, Chris Dale featured the film The Day After Tomorrow on his Randomizer segment. This is not the 2004 film about climate change. Instead, it was a 1975 segment of an American after school series called Special Treat, which offered educational programming aimed at teenagers. It appeared soon afterward on the BBC. The show was produced by Gerry Anderson and starred Nick Tate, Joanna Dunham, and Brian Blessed. The show was produced between seasons one and two of Space: 1999 and it shares models and props with the television show. One of the show’s goals was to introduce kids to Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Anderson apparently had the notion that he might turn this into a series, so wrote it in such a way that more episodes could follow the special.

I was intrigued by Dale’s discussion of the show on the podcast, so decided to seek it out. The episode is available on the DVD The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson, along with several other one-shot gems produced by Anderson. The Day After Tomorrow reminded me of what Lost in Space might have been like without the Robot or Dr. Smith. Two families travel in a near light-speed craft to Alpha Centauri and beyond. Of course, this becomes our “vehicle” for discussing the effects of special relativity. Nick Tate, best known as Alan Carter in Space: 1999, is the captain and he travels with his daughter. Brian Blessed and Joanna Dunham play a husband and wife scientist team with a son. Like the Robinson kids in the early episodes of Lost in Space, these kids are smart, but manage to avoid crossing over into the annoying territory that kids in science fiction shows have been known to do. Since this is 1975 and well before Brian Blessed became known for “Gordon’s Alive!” in Flash Gordon, he delivers a subdued and believable performance as a scientist.

While I was prepared to see the cast to discuss the wonders of Einstein’s theories, there was a moment that truly surprised me about two-thirds of the way into the show. Joanna Dunham’s character, Dr. Anna Bowen, is observing a red giant star when she warns that she’s detecting “massive neutrino emissions from the red sun.” A moment later, the sun explodes into a supernova! As it turns out, the notion that a supernova would be preceded by a neutrino burst is a theory proposed by my graduate advisor, Dr. Stirling Colgate, in a 1966 paper. This theory would finally be demonstrated in 1987 when a neutrino burst was detected just before Supernova 1987A was observed.

Stirling Colgate at the Digitized Astronomy Observatory after the detection of neutrinos from Supernova 1987A

It’s hard to look at the special and say that it was full of groundbreaking or mind-blowing science. Mostly it seemed like a fun, action adventure show that tossed in some tidbits about special relativity. Still, writer Johnny Byrne had done some homework in astronomy to know that it had been theorized that a neutrino burst would precede a supernova explosion. As a science fiction writer, I know story and character come first, but I really do appreciate a moment like this when I see a writer going the extra mile to understand his subject matter.

TusCon 48

This coming weekend, I will be one of the programming participants at TusCon 48, which will be held at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites in Tucson, Arizona from November 12-14, 2021. The author guest of honor will be New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Ashley. The artist guest of honor will be Jill Bauman, who has illustrated hundreds of works including those by writers such as Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Lilian Jackson Braun. The fan guest of honor will be Doreen Webbert. The toastmaster will be Bram Stoker Award-winning author Weston Ochse. you can find more information about the convention at https://tusconscificon.com

Hadrosaur Productions will have a table in the dealer’s room, where we will feature some of my recently updated titles such as The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth. We will also have books by other authors on hand such as Exchange Students edited by Sheila Hartney, Hybrid by Greg Ballan, and Upstart Mystique by Don Braden. I’m excited to note that Don Braden will be on hand for TusCon. If you’re there, be sure to buy a copy of his novel and ask him to sign it for you!

My schedule for TusCon is as follows:

Friday, November 12

6:00pm to 7:00pm in Panel Room 1. Are Canonical Stories Better than Non-Canon. We have many kinds of expanded stories. Some of them are part of canon. Some are not. Which is better? Is there a better? On the panel with me are Linda D Addison, Catherine Wells, and Marty Ketola.

Saturday, November 13

9:00am to 10:00am in the Ballroom. Solving your Heroes Problems Well. Putting heroes in danger is almost the definition of what authors do, but how do you get them out of the danger realistically but not to easily? On the panel with me are Catherine Wells, Bruce Davis, and Cynthia Ward.

12:00pm to 1:00pm in the Autographing Area. Autograph Signing. I will be available to sign autographs throughout the convention whenever I’m at my dealer’s table, but for this hour, I’ll hang out at the autographing table.

1:00pm to 2:00pm in Panel Room 2. Hunting for Planets from Kitt Peak. A look at how we’re hunting for exoplanets at Kitt Peak National Observatory using the NEID spectrograph along with a discussion of some cool exoplanet results.

If you’ll be in Tucson this coming weekend, I hope to see you at TusCon. Please note, the organizers do require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for admission and masks will be required throughout the weekend.