Gaslight Expo and MileHiCon

This coming weekend, Friday, October 1 through Sunday, October 3, I’ll be a live in-person participant at Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California and I’ll be a virtual participant at MileHiCon in Denver, Colorado. Until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t actually certain I would be able to do either event. I was scheduled to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory those nights. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, one member of our telescope operations team left for another job. We only recently hired a new person after finding the safest way to train a new hire. Because our new operator is still training, and thus doubled up with other operators, vacation time is not being readily approved. Still, I was able to make a trade with one of the other telescope operators.

Of the two events, Gaslight Steampunk Expo asked me to be a participant first. I had told them if I was able to get the weekend off, I would be there. At the time, I thought MileHiCon would be held on the same weekend it has been the last few years, which is closer to the end of October, so I hadn’t imagined there would be a schedule conflict. When MileHiCon invited me, I was surprised to find out they had moved to the first weekend of October. Fortunately, they decided to do a virtual programming track in addition to a live programming track. Among other things, they weren’t certain who would be willing and able to travel to Denver with the pandemic. In my case travel would have been a challenge. Even though I was able to get time off, the only way I could travel to Denver from Tucson in the time allotted would be to fly and even that would assume flights at times I could make.


Gaslight Steampunk Expo will be held from September 30 through October 3 at the San Diego Mission Valley Marriott. The theme for the 2021 event will be the 1889 Universelle Exposition du Paris (World Fair) where Gustave Eiffel built the largest structure on the planet as the gateway to the Champ du Mars and dedicated it to science and the 199 workers who helped him construct this modern marvel. You can get more information about the event at https://www.gaslightexpo.org/

My schedule for the event is as follows:

Saturday, October 2, 2021

  • 4pm – 5pm – Autographing – Vendor Hall. I’ll have a selection of my novels and other writings to sign at the Vendor Hall.
  • 6:30pm – 7:30pm – From Jules Verne to Jacques Tardi: French Literature and Comics – Salon B. I will join James and Kim Keeline who collect antiquarian books to discuss how to find the best Jules Verne translations, other cool French steampunk including the comics of Jacques Tardi and some French films that may have escaped notice in the United States.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

  • 11am – noon – Victorian Astronomy – Salon C. I’ll give an overview of Victorian-era astronomy and how it changed the world.
  • 2pm -3pm – Steampunk Literature: Past, Present, and Future – Salon C. A brief look at the history of steampunk literature and where the future might lead. Madeleine Holly-Rosing and I will be presenting this panel.

For SF/F and speculative fiction lovers, MileHiCon is a weekend not to be missed. The convention will feature authors, artists, speakers and programming on every aspect of the science fiction and fantasy genres. The author guests of honor are G. Willow Wilson and Rachael Swirsky. The artist guest of honor is Rebecca Hicks and the toastmaster is Aaron Michael Ritchey. You can get more information and programming details at https://milehicon.org

I have recorded a reading of the first chapter of my novella Breaking the Code and I have also recorded the science presentation “Surveying the Universe” about Kitt Peak’s DESI project. Those should both appear on the MileHiCon YouTube channel. If you go to YouTube and search for MileHiCon during the weekend of the convention, you should be able to find the presentations. I’ll plan to share them here at the Web Journal after the convention. I’m disappointed that my schedule doesn’t allow me to attend the convention in person, but I am grateful that the organizers did create a virtual track that allows me to participate in some capacity.

Summer Shutdown 2021

I returned to work on site at Kitt Peak National Observatory in November 2020. Social distancing regulations were put in place along with several other protocols to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection. In that time, we’ve been making great strides commissioning the DESI spectrograph and starting it’s five-year survey, which is intended to result in the most comprehensive 3D map of the universe yet made. The instrument is already getting results. For those who don’t recall earlier posts about DESI, it has 5000 optical fibers mounted at the prime focus of the Mayall 4-meter telescope. Each fiber can be positioned to align precisely with an object on the sky. The fibers run to a spectrograph where the light is analyzed and redshifts of distant objects such as galaxies and quasars can be measured. The following image shows how much sky DESI gets in one pointing. It shows the nearby Andromeda Galaxy taking up much of the field, but as an example, you see that one fiber has landed on a distant quasar. It’s spectrum is displayed in the inset box. Each of the pizza-slice segments represents the 500 fibers in one petal of the DESI instrument.

The disk of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), which spans more than 3 degrees across the sky, is targeted by a single DESI pointing, represented by the large circular overlay. The smaller circles within this overlay represent the regions accessible to each of the 5000 DESI robotic fiber positioners. In this sample, the 5000 spectra that were simultaneously collected by DESI include not only stars within the Andromeda Galaxy, but also distant galaxies and quasars. The example DESI spectrum that overlays this image is of a distant quasar that is 11 billion years old. Credit: DESI collaboration/DESI Legacy Imaging Surveys/LBNL/DOE & KPNO/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/unWISE

Summer in Arizona is monsoon season. In short, we get a lot of rain. Clear skies can be few and far between. As a result, this is the time of year engineers often choose to shut down the telescopes to do maintenance and make modifications. The DESI instrument has been performing well, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. The fibers in each of those pizza-slice shapes are aligned by a system called the “Command Action Network” or CAN-Bus for short. It was determined that the CAN-Bus system in DESI could be improved. To do this, each petal has to be removed from the Mayall’s prime focus and placed in an area where it can be worked on. We’re able to do this work this summer because of the availability of COVID vaccines. We do take care to practice social distancing where possible and, especially in the wake of the Delta variant’s rise, we’re staying masked throughout the day. This next photo shows DESI with four of the petals removed.

DESI opened up. The red device in the foreground is used to carefully extract the petals.

The trickiest part of this operation is that the DESI petals are all attached by several yards of fiber optic cable to the spectrographs two stories below. When we remove the petals, we don’t want to torque or strain those cables too much. The petals are lifted down and placed on the floor beside the telescope. Once there, they’re placed into clean tents where they’re worked on. Here we see two members of the DESI team diligently working on the CAN-Bus electronics behind the fiber positioners.

Working on the petals. The fiber optic cables come out of the tent, run along the top and then over the rail to the spectrographs below.

Finally when all the new electronics are installed, the petals have to be tested. Among other things, we need to make sure we didn’t break any of the fibers as we handled the petals. DESI is designed to be able to shine light from the spectrograph up through the fibers. We call these “back illuminators” and a camera mounted just below the telescope’s primary mirror can take an image of the back illuminated fibers to see what position they’re in. Here we see the petal out of the telescope with the back illuminators turned on.

DESI’S fibers glowing a friendly blue, telling us all is well after the work has been completed.

Once the upgrades are completed, the petals are reattached to the telescope. This is a big collaborative effort involving many people from around the country and around the world. Once it’s done, we should have made what was already a powerful machine designed to answer questions about dark energy into an even more powerful machine.

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Given my love of both Star Trek and animation, I knew I would get around to watching the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks eventually. I admit, I didn’t quite rush to the show for two reasons. First off, back when Star Trek: The Next Generation did a couple of episodes from the point of view of junior officers, I felt they’d botched certain elements of it. Also, the animation style put me off. Still, I’m glad I took a chance and saw what the series had to offer. I was pleased to find yet another incarnation of the Star Trek universe to enjoy.

Set aboard the U.S.S. Cerritos, Lower Decks focuses on four ensigns: Becket Mariner, an irreverent character who has climbed up to higher rank, only to be demoted again; Brad Boimler, a by-the-book character who sees himself as a future captain; Davana T’endi, an Orion medical technician; and Eugene Cordero, an engineer adjusting to a cybernetic implant. The ship itself is on a mission of providing engineering support to worlds just entering the Federation. The series features many references to classic Star Trek episodes and, perhaps not surprisingly, has many wonderful tributes to the original animated series. On the whole, the source of the humor comes from poking fun at places fans themselves have poked fun at the different series. More than once, the series reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.

Back in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there were two episodes told from the perspective of junior officers. The first was called “Tapestry” where the powerful alien Q shows Picard what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten into a fight which resulted in him needing an artificial heart. We learn Picard never took the chances he needed to be promoted and remained a junior officer. The next episode was “Lower Decks” about four junior officers up for promotion. Both episodes were good overall, but my problem was that the senior officers seemed too aloof and frankly snobbish around the junior officers. The dynamic felt more like Hollywood producers around interns from the back office than members of a team working together to explore the galaxy. Over my time in astronomy, I’ve had the opportunity to work with numerous well-known scientists in leadership positions, including Nobel Prize winners, and while some have been challenging to work with, most have been team players who recognized that everyone in the room was there because they had something to contribute no matter their level of seniority or what accolades they’d received. When I turn on a Star Trek episode, I want to see a team I’d want to be on as much or more than the one I’m on in real life. The Lower Decks animated series succeeded at this, possibly helped by the comedy premise. All of the characters are flawed, which puts them on much more equal footing as people, even when some of those people have more experience. What’s more, I felt as though the characters were having fun, which made me want to join them for the fun of exploration.

In graduate school, I was a fan of Matt Groenig’s comic strip, Life in Hell. I watched Groenig go on to develop The Simpsons and Futurama. I then watched other creators use a similar style in shows like Family Guy and Rick and Morty. In effect, Groenig’s style became the “adult animated comedy” style and we see it again in Lower Decks. I don’t dislike the style, but I found myself wondering if it would work for Star Trek. As it turns out, the style was adjusted to give it just a little more realism. While I was frustrated to see another American animation show forced to look a certain way because of its intended audience, I did find the actual look appealing and I soon warmed to the characters, in part because of solid voice acting and good scripts.

On a personal level, I loved the California-class ships named after the state’s cities. Growing up in California, I recognized all the ship names they’ve mentioned so far. I would love to see my old stomping grounds of San Bernardino or Barstow get a starship in a later season. The former seems like it would provide an opportunity to pay tribute to original series writer Jerome Bixby, who lived there. It might be fun to see it appear in an episode about the mirror universe that he created. Of course, Bixby’s stories were an early influence on my own writing, which you can learn more about by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Saturn’s Shrouded Moon

I love a good mystery and I love exploring new places. These two facts go a long way to explaining why I love astronomy. The universe is vast and we know so little about it. The NEID spectrograph at the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak is just getting started on its mission helping to learn about planets around other stars. The DESI spectrograph on the Mayall telescope is starting its mission of mapping the northern sky with hopes of understanding dark energy. Of course, dark energy is one of those fundamentally great mysteries because we see evidence of its existence, but we really don’t know yet what it is. Fun space operas like Star Trek or even my Space Pirates’ Legacy series make space exploration look inevitable and even easy, but in fact, we’ve barely started. People have only been to the moon a few times and robots have just visited a few of our neighbor worlds in our own solar system. We have almost a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today, I want to focus on one small world within our own solar system, Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s the second largest moon in the solar system and one covered with a dense atmosphere. It’s a place of real interest for those people seeking life in the solar system. The Cassini mission discovered that Titan has a salty sea underneath its icy crust. Its atmosphere is teaming with organic molecules that get deposited on its methane-ethane lakes and seas. We’ve sent a probe to Titan’s surface and we’ve even made good headway at mapping the surface. We’ve even started naming some of the features on Titan’s surface as you can see in this map from the US Geological Survey.

Map of Titan

By the way, you can download a good, high resolution PDF of this map at: https://planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov/Page/Images. It’s the one called Titan with VIMS Bacground and Radar Strips. I love that we have a map of Titan with this much detail, but this map also makes me think of old maps of the Earth with great undefined places. You can even imagine the legend “There be dragons here” somewhere on this map. We have learned a lot about the solar system and the universe in the last century, but this map makes it clear we still have a lot to learn about Titan.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing science fiction. I like to dream about the things we might find in the solar system and in the galaxy. I like to consider the more blurry places on the Titan map and wonder what might be there that could surprise us. In my novel, The Solar Sea, I imagine scientists discovering particles that travel through time on Earth’s moon. Once they understand the energy signature of these particles they go looking for them throughout the solar system and discover them in great abundance on Titan. This becomes the reason the Quinn Corporation decides to build a solar sail spacecraft to go find these valuable particles. The thing is, when they get to Titan, they look beneath the shroud and find…

Well, that would be spoilers. Fortunately though, you can get the book as part of the amazing Expansive Futures SciFi Bundle. The bundle includes eighteen great science fiction novels curated for the SFWA by Amy DuBoff. This is last call. The bundle is only available until Thursday March 4 at https://storybundle.com/scifi

How I Botched the Acetylcholine Test

I am a textbook introvert. As many sites on the internet will tell you, this is nothing unusual. All it really means is that much as I find interactions with people necessary and even rewarding, I can also find them draining. This would seem to be true of anywhere from 30-50% of the population. An upshot of being an introvert is the holidays can be especially draining with parties and gatherings. You would think I wouldn’t have found this year as draining given that gatherings have been discouraged. In fact, I didn’t go to any in-person events. While I did go to several online gatherings, as I noted in High Tech New Year’s Eve post, those were all pretty comfortable affairs with people I know well.

As a writer, I’m interested in what motivates people. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated to learn how much our brain chemistry affects who we are. I’ve found several articles that suggest that the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine play a strong role in who is an introvert and who is an extrovert. Simply put, introverts seem to thrive more on acetylcholine which makes us feel good when we turn inward. We feel gratified by long periods of time focused on a single task. Extroverts thrive more on dopamine, which can get released when you have positive interactions with others, such as a phone call that pushes your career forward or a strong romantic engagement.

A beautiful, quiet moment – the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as seen from outside the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope.

Now, I’m an astronomer, not a neurochemist, so I can’t vouch for how accurate this is. For that matter, I’ve come across some articles that suggest that dopamine and acetylcholine are far more intertwined in the brain than my simple description above would suggest. Still, it does mesh with my experience of really enjoying quiet tasks where I work by myself for long periods of time. It probably goes a long way to explaining why I like to write. So, I suspect there is some truth to something about my personality liking acetylcholine.

So, how did I botch the test? First off, I should explain that this post’s title is a reference to the classic Star Trek episode “The Immunity Syndrome.” In the episode, Mr. Spock has to fly a shuttlecraft into a giant space amoeba to save the Enterprise. While he’s there, he’s supposed to conduct some tests. Of course, he saves the day and everyone is happy, but Dr. McCoy points out that Spock didn’t do everything right. He tells Spock, “You botched the acetylcholine test!”

To this day, I’m not sure how Spock botched the test. I “botched the test” at a more personal level. At the moment, my work days at Kitt Peak National Observatory start around 4pm with a Zoom Meeting with various project collaborators. This meeting usually only lasts a few minutes, but then resumes again around 5:30pm with those collaborators who are observing. The Zoom meeting then lasts all the way until sunrise. Now, I’m not talking or interacting with the collaborators the whole night, but they are often interacting with each other and I do have to pay attention to plans for the night. I have no problem with this, but it can keep me from engaging in long, deep periods of concentration.

Also, I had planned a nice quiet period between Christmas and the New Year. I wasn’t scheduled to be at the observatory and I arranged a break from a collaborative creative project I’ve been involved in. As it turns out, I got a call on Christmas Eve from one of my editors, telling me notes on a story would be arriving that night. In short, the week turned into an intensive, albeit productive and gratifying, session whipping a story into shape for publication. I’ll tell you about that story in Saturday’s post. Once that was done, I had the nice New Year’s Eve that I talked about, then went back to work for more long observing nights with their accompanying Zoom sessions. Needless to say, I reached the first break of the new year feeling pretty wiped out.

I was suffering what some people know as an “introvert hangover.” For me, this takes the form of almost every interaction, no matter how benign, getting on my nerves. I try not to get to this point, but it does happen sometimes. Fortunately, we’re a family of introverts and we do our best to take care of each other when this happens. Also, I’ve been able to have some quiet time at the end of this most recent break from the observatory and I’m starting to feel myself again.

I hope your new year is off to a good start and you’re doing your best to stay healthy and well.

Once More Unto the Breach

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

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

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

David at the Mayall

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

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

Working in the Old Console Room again.

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

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

Virtual October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mars at Opposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mars at 3:43UT on October 18.

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

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

Saturn

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

A Jovian family portrait.

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

Documentation

Kitt Peak National Observatory is one of many large observatories around the world shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally, I was part of a skeleton crew scheduled to be on site making sure there were no problems with site infrastructure during the shutdown. However, management decided to reduce that crew, pulling our team from the rotation for the time being. So my main job at the moment is working on telescope documentation from home.

This is an important job. Four years ago, the control system at the Mayall 4-meter went through a major hardware and software upgrade in preparation for the Dark Energy Survey Instrument (DESI) that we’re now using. Those of us who operate the telescope learned how to do things on the fly before the telescope was shutdown for the actual DESI upgrade. During that period, the programmers and engineers who did the control system upgrade were, of course, occupied installing DESI and making it work. The upshot is that it’s now time to actually document how the new control system works.

As it turns out, a lot of the basic “how do you make the telescope go” level of documentation is already complete. That’s stuff I was able to do before and during the DESI upgrade. The stuff I’m working on now is more “under the hood” level documentation. For example, the image above shows two sets of coordinates: Target and Sky. Both are the same in the picture. The kind of information I need from a programmer is what does he mean when he refers to the “Target” coordinates and what does he mean when he refers to the “Sky” coordinates. It turns out, the two should only be different if you know the telescope is slewing from one target to another, or the servos are turned off and the telescope is not tracking the sky.

The other day, I shared a news article about the closure of observatories on social media. I received a lot of surprise from people. Observatories are, after all, remote places and you’d think they’re about as “socially distant” a place to be as possible. In fact, on my last night of observing, I shared a control room with an observer from the UK and one from Mexico and we even joked about that a little. Look back at the previous sentence, though, and you actually see part of the problem. Large observatories attract observers and tourists from all around the world. We may not have a lot of people on site, but they are people who have traveled far to get there, possibly exposing themselves to the virus on the way.

Even if we closed down to just remote operations where only local people were allowed at the observatory, we’d still have a problem. If something breaks, you often need a team of engineers and technicians to get it operating again. You could imagine allowing the observatory to run until something breaks, and then just leaving it at that point until someone could fix it. The problem with this scenario becomes clear if you imagine a situation where the broken mechanism is the dome shutter and rain is approaching, which could, in turn, damage the telescope and instrumentation.

Fortunately, even though many large telescopes are shut down, many smaller facilities are still operating and monitoring the skies for “transient” objects like asteroids and supernovae. Science is still happening. It’s not quite full stop as far as monitoring the skies. Many of these smaller facilities only require one or two people on site to fix problems. So there’s much less danger in this case.

Related to my job at the observatory, I heard an interesting statement from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US Infectious Disease Specialist. In an interview with CNN, he said, “What we’re seeing right now are some favorable signs. It’s looking like that in many cases particularly in New York we’re starting to see a flattening and turning around. We would want to see … I would want to see a clear indication that you are very very clearly and strongly going in the right direction.” What really struck me in this description of early signs the COVID-19 pandemic may be improving is how much it reminded me of how I describe safe conditions to open the telescope for observing after bad weather has closed us down. Let’s say humidity or wind are too high for the telescope to be open safely. We have officially stated limits for when we can open, but sometimes I don’t open right at those limits and I give an explanation similar to Dr. Fauci’s. It’s all too easy for wind or humidity to have a momentary downward blip, then come up again right away. We want to see a clear indication that conditions are improving. Let’s hope the pandemic turns around soon and we get the clear, strong indications that we’re moving in the right direction.

New Year’s Eve at Kitt Peak

Earlier this week, I rang in the new year while on the job, helping observers commission the DESI spectrograph on the Mayall 4-meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Looking back, I see I rang in eight years of the last decade at the observatory. So, working on New Year’s Eve is getting to be something of a tradition for me.

Working at the observatory on New Year’s Eve is much like working on any other night of the year. It all starts out with me evaluating the weather. In the photo, I’m standing in front of the Mayall, watching the sunset. Throughout the week I had watched a forecasted storm for the night get downgraded to the point that we expected reasonable observing conditions. The night actually arrived with dark clouds and light snow. Not only was this unwelcome for observing, but New Year’s Eve was the last night of my shift and I didn’t relish the idea of driving on snowy roads.

The poor weather didn’t keep us from our commissioning work. On an instrument where 5000-robotic fibers must be precisely aligned with targets on the sky and then send the light from those targets to ten spectrographs, there’s still plenty of work that may be accomplished with the dome closed. We started with some spectrograph calibration tests, trying to answer whether it matters where the telescope is pointed when we calibrate the instrument. There was some concern about whether or not twisting of fibers at different telescope orientations might make subtle changes to the light going through them and affect the measurements we hope to make. This is important to understand and characterize before we start making measurements.

Another job we had was to test a camera that looks at the fibers on the telescope. That’s how we know the fibers are on the correct objects. We can test this camera because DESI includes some fibers that can be illuminated. This means the fiber view camera can see the position of some fibers even when we’re not looking at the sky. The telescope itself is big and flexes as it points around the sky. Understanding how objects appear on the fiber view camera depending on where we point is also an important job. We can do a lot by pointing the telescope in the closed dome with the test fibers illuminated.

Testing a new, complex system also uncovers software bugs and errors in procedure. The lead software developer on this project is fond of using barnyard sounds like a chicken clucking or a cow mooing when an error occurs. So, these sounds do occasionally intrude into our work, which means the software people need to debug code or help observers refine procedures. This is also productive work for a cloudy, snowy night. I’m also convinced that I need to find a way to work barnyard noises into some future high-tech science fiction space opera!

At 10pm, we tuned into the live feed from Times Square in New York to watch the ball drop while we worked. At midnight, we took enough of a break to toast the new year with mugs of coffee. Kitt Peak National Observatory is on the land of the Tohono O’Odham, so no alcohol is allowed, even if we weren’t working.

When the decade started, I thought of myself as “the temp” on the operations staff at Kitt Peak. I returned to Kitt Peak after nearly fifteen years to help the observatory with a staffing challenge and stabilize my income long enough to achieve some personal goals. Ten years later, I’ve achieved most of my goals, but I still think of myself as “the temp.” It’s an attitude that serves me well.

In the current political climate, I can’t guarantee my job will always be funded so I don’t take for granted I’ll have this job for an indefinite period of time. More importantly having the attitude of being “the temp” assures that I always feel free to speak my mind when needed and avoid self censorship, which is important in a job where I’m responsible for the safety of visitors. Also like any good temporary employee, I want to stay in the good graces of my employers, so it assures that I always try to do my best and constantly hone my craft.

As one decade finishes and another begins, I’m thankful to have a good and interesting job expanding humankind’s knowledge of the universe, but I also stand ready to take on whatever challenges that universe decides to throw at me in the coming decade.