See You Space Cowboy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Finder Scopes

One of the things I like about working at Kitt Peak National Observatory is that my job has a lot of variety. I contribute to important science projects and I help with engineering that helps to achieve the observatory’s science goals. Sometimes I act as something of a councilor, commiserating with observers during inclement weather. I even get to employ my writing skills when documenting tasks for our operations manuals.

This past week, one project I helped with was testing a new finder scope for the 4-meter telescope. Finder scopes don’t often get a lot of attention, but they serve an important function. Telescopes often give you such an enhanced view of the sky that it’s difficult to know exactly where you’re pointed. A finder scope is simply a smaller telescope mounted to the bigger telescope that lets you see a wide swath of the sky and confirm that you’re looking where you think you should be. Even my 90mm telescope has a finder scope on it. It’s the little tiny telescope piggybacked on the bigger telescope.

Here’s a view of the finder scope mounted to the top of the 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. Note that it’s basically just a camera lens directing light into a little digital camera.

This will prove vitally important when we start using the DESI spectrograph on the 4-meter. With that instrument, we’ll have fibers directing most of the light to spectrographs instead of a direct view of the sky. We will have a guide camera, but if, for some reason, the telescope pointing is off, it may be hard to find where we are. Because of that, it’s nice to have a widefield view of the sky. The images taken with the finder scope won’t be the ones you see in most magazines, but still, we played a little while testing and took a nice photo of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31 and it’s companion, M110.

We also took an image of the Pleiades, which is a nearby open cluster visible with the naked eye. These are young stars with nebulosity still around them. Even with our small telescope, it only took 30 seconds to see some of the nebular clouds.

Speaking of variety, another job I did this week was help an astronomer monitor a Jupiter-sized planet as it transited its star. This planet had a rotational period of only 1.6 days and we monitored it with the WIYN telescope at the same time the Kepler Space Telescope monitored it. Having two telescopes monitoring it at the same time allows for scientists to confirm and double check results. The system we were watching is very much like system I wrote about in the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen. You can learn more about the book and find places to order at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Keplers-Dozen.html. The book gives a unique look at the types of worlds discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. My co-editor on the project was Dr. Steve B. Howell, head of the Astronomy and Astrobiology Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Saturday Morning Cartoons

Perhaps one of the things I miss most from years gone by is the ability to tune in to network television on Saturday morning and find a wide variety of animated cartoon programming. Much of this is due to television networks in the period of 1992 to 2002 deciding they didn’t make enough money to continue supporting animated programming. Also, around 2001 my wife and I decided that neither cable nor satellite TV were necessary items for our budget and we could see all the TV we wanted with other media such as DVDs. Of course, our decision was all part of the national trend that helped to kill animation in the first place. Not many people eschewed broadcast TV altogether as we did that early, but the number of choices available made it harder for networks to justify the expense of animation when certain cable networks specialized in it.

I grew up watching cartoons in the 1970s. I fondly remember many teams of crime-solving kids from shows such as Scooby-Doo and Josie and the Pussycats. The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour provided some great comedy, much of it originally produced much before my time. I was already a Star Trek fan and loved the animated adaptation that aired in the mid 70s. There were even some cool live action experiments during that time such as Land of the Lost about a family trapped in a land of dinosaurs and the superhero-themed Shazam/Isis Hour.

I never really fell out of love with cartoons, but the 1990s ended up being another high point for me. That was in the early days of my astronomy career and cartoons became an escape from my working life. They were also a welcome treat when my first daughter was young. What I particularly remember from that period were some exceptional superhero shows such as Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men. There were also some great animated superhero parodies such as Earthworm Jim, The Tick and Freakazoid.

Of course, for all the gems, there were many forgettable shows as well. Still, what I find amazing living in the times we do is how many of these shows that I thought I would never see again are readily available on video or with the touch of a button on the internet. For a guy like me who occasionally wants a dose of nostalgia, these are great times. That said, the real joy of those Saturday mornings was the fun of discovery and I think that’s what I really miss is having that easy means of discovering new favorites.

Giving people a way to discover new authors was much of the reason I edited Hadrosaur Tales followed by Tales of the Talisman. Publishing those magazines also helped me appreciate the economic reality that caused the networks to take Saturday morning cartoons off the air. Like TV shows gone by, you can still get most of the back issues of both magazines. There are some great stories there by authors such as Neal Asher, Nicole Givens Kurtz, David Boop, and Janni Lee Simner and many more. You can find the back issues of each at:

As it turns out, I can do better than just give you nostalgia, Hadrosaur Productions has published two anthologies of stories set around planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission. Be sure to check out:

Read an Ebook Week

Smashwords’ ninth annual Read an Ebook Week promotion is underway and Hadrosaur Productions is proud to participate. We’re offering the following titles at a 50% discount. This includes our brand new collection of short stories about planets discovered by the Kepler space telescope: Kepler’s Cowboys. To take advantage of the discount, simply go to the link, add the book to your cart and use the discount code RAE50 on checkout.


Kepler’s Cowboys

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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, L.J. Bonham, and many more!

Kepler’s Cowboys is available at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/698694


A Kepler’s Dozen

HowellSummersKeplersDozen

Of course, if you’re going to explore the Kepler planets, I know you’re going to want to get them all!

A Kepler’s Dozen presents thirteen 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, editor of Tales of the Talisman Magazine, 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, these exoplanet stories will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets.

A Kepler’s Dozen is available at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/325583


Revolution of Air and Rust

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1915. Teddy Roosevelt is building an empire. Only Pancho Villa stands in his way.

The American Expeditionary Force under the command of General “Black Jack” Pershing has invaded Northern Mexico. Pancho Villa leads his revolutionary army in a desperate raid against the American force only to be outflanked. Just as Pershing’s airships prepare to deliver the death blow, Pancho Villa is transported to a parallel Earth where he finds an unexpected ally and the technology that might just turn defeat into victory.

Revolution of Air and Rust is a stand-alone novella set in the Empires of Steam and Rust world created by Robert E. Vardeman and Stephen D. Sullivan. A story filled with military action, espionage and gadgetry that’s sure to satisfy fans of steampunk and alternate history.

Revolution of Air and Rust is available at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/254622


Sugar Time

Sugar Time

Her name is Sugar. Sugar Sweet. But never EVER call her “Sweetie.”

When Sugar’s Uncle Max falls ill and his collaborators disappear, she investigates the old Victorian mansion where he conducted his research. She soon finds the collaborators—or what’s left of them—along with an angry Neanderthal. She also finds her uncle’s research project, a working time machine. Sugar must act quickly to unlock the secret of time travel so she can set things right and protect her uncle’s research.

Sugar Time collects Joy V. Smith’s Sugar Sweet stories into one volume.

Sugar Time is available at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/567992

Kepler’s Cowboys Cover Reveal

I have nearly finished selecting and editing stories and poems for Hadrosaur Productions’ new anthology, Kepler’s Cowboys. I hope to have the process wrapped up this week. In this anthology, the authors imagine the daring men, women, and even machines who will travel to the stars, explore, and settle planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. My co-editor on the project is Steve Howell, who is also project scientist for NASA’s K2 mission, which is the extended Kepler Space Telescope mission. Recently, artist Laura Givens turned in her cover for the book.

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Physicist Stephen Hawking has been in the news recently saying he believes humans only have about 1000 years left on Earth due to factors such as climate change, nuclear terrorism, and even the rise of artificial intelligence. Like Hawking, I believe humans need to move out into space in order to survive as a species. That said, there’s a part of me that worries his 1000-year estimate is optimistic.

Results from the Kepler Space Telescope suggest that almost every star we see has a planetary system around it. Earth-based telescopes and the recent K2 mission have been finding planets ever closer to Earth, many of which are in their stars’ habitable zones, meaning that liquid water can exist if all other conditions are right. This gives me hope that future generations can, indeed, push out into the stars and find new homes for humanity.

Kepler’s Cowboys follows our anthology A Kepler’s Dozen which presented tales of thirteen words discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. In the first anthology, we invited authors to participate and worked with them closely as they developed their stories. The new anthology has much more of a “wild west” feel, not only in the stories themselves, but in the sense that we opened it up to anyone who wanted to submit to tell whatever story they desired. We did this because there are, in fact, so many worlds out there that the number of possible futures is endless.

Even though we have allowed authors to submit whatever stories they wanted, Steve and I have still worked closely with the authors to make sure they present worlds that are within the realms of possibility as we know them. In fact, this has been part of the process I’ve enjoyed most. It’s been an aspect of editing that I missed in the last days before the Tales of the Talisman hiatus. I spent so much time reading and selecting stories, then creating issues of the magazine, that I never really had a chance to help authors with their story craft. I hope Kepler’s Cowboys captures some of the excitement that comes seeing what authors present when allowed to explore a theme and tell the stories they want, but also maintains a high level of quality and consistently good storytelling throughout.

I hope to announce a formal publication date for Kepler’s Cowboys soon, but we’re currently shooting for publication in February or March 2017. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out A Kepler’s Dozen.