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.

Advertisements

Hunting Asteroids

I rang in the new year by helping Robert McMillan, Jim Scotti, and Melissa Brucker from the University of Arizona hunt for potentially hazardous asteroids in our solar system at the Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope. This is important work since asteroid impacts are one of the few completely predictable and preventable natural disasters. Here I am at the telescope console.

As it turns out, this observing run was something of a bittersweet milestone. Bob, Jim, and Melissa are the last scheduled visiting observers on the 4-meter. At this point, we have about five more weeks of observing with a scheduled imaging survey program and then the telescope shuts down so it can be refitted with an instrument called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, or DESI. DESI will measure the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. It will obtain optical spectra for tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a 3-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years.

So, what about the asteroids? Well, the good news is that there are smaller telescopes on Kitt Peak devoted to the search. The reason Bob, Jim, and Melissa use the 4-meter is that it allows them to look for more distant asteroids on nights when the small telescopes are not as effective. In this case, we were attempting our observations during the full moon. Because the moon is so bright, it’s hard to see faint, distant objects with small telescopes because you need to expose on the sky for a long time. The 4-meter can take shorter exposures and still detect these faint objects without having the skylight swamp the exposures. In the meantime, Bob, Jim, and Melissa have applied for time on other telescopes around the world to do the work they were doing on the Kitt Peak 4-meter.

Often times when I’m involved in these runs, I’m asked if I’ll let people know if something is going to fall on us. Well, if I know, I’ll tell. However, what we often do is identify small objects a long ways away. It’ll usually take more than the observations we get to determine the object’s orbit and find out whether or not it presents a serious hazard.

So what actually happens if we discover an asteroid that might hit the Earth? I found this NASA video that gives a nice explanation. I notice there is also an image credit from my friend Mike Weasner, a talented amateur astronomer who is also a science fiction fan.

If you want to get more of a sense of what life is like behind the scenes at an astronomical observatory, be sure to read my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel and get a sneak peak at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Thanksgiving at Kitt Peak

For the most part, astronomy doesn’t stop for holidays. At Kitt Peak National Observatory, the only nights we don’t open to observe are Christmas Eve and Christmas. Even then, members of my team are on hand to tend instruments and keep watch over the site so things are ready to go the day after the holiday. This year, my shift happened to fall across the entire Thanksgiving weekend. Fortunately, my wife and daughter were able to come up and spend the holiday with me.

At this time of year, I work long nights. My “day” starts around 3:30pm and I work until about 7am the following morning. On Thanksgiving Day, I walked into work to discover my workstation occupied. If you’ve seen the trailer for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt you might recognize this as something of a recurring theme in my work life! Al Cabone (the skeleton in the chair) showed up at the telescope a little over a year ago at Halloween time and has become something of a mascot.

We start in the afternoon to allow observers an opportunity to calibrate their data. This Thanksgiving, the early start allowed me a chance to bring my daughter to the telescope. She has a definite interest in the sciences with some thoughts of pursuing astronomy. So, this proved a great opportunity to give her taste of what professional astronomy is like.

During afternoon calibrations, I let her have the operator’s chair to enter some commands and try her hand at moving a 3.5-meter telescope.

After calibrations, we were able to take a break for Thanksgiving dinner. At this time of year, dinner is by necessity brief. We finished calibrations at 4:30pm. I needed to be back before the 5:25pm sunset so we could finish getting the telescope ready for the night. Fortunately, we have a kitchen staff at Kitt Peak and they prepare food for us. So my daughter and I joined my wife at the mountain cafeteria for Thanksgiving dinner.

When I speak to people about my work at the telescope, I sense that people imagine that I get to see numerous awe-inspiring sights in the night sky. In fact, some nights I do. However, some nights, the beauty comes from gaining a deeper understanding than what you see in the usual pretty pictures. On Thanksgiving, our job was to measure the spectra of stars in a couple of clusters to understand their chemical abundances. Now spectra can be very pretty, like this one of the star Arcturus, taken with the Coudé Feed telescope at Kitt Peak.

N.A.Sharp, NOAO/AURA/NSF

In that image, the interesting science is contained in the pattern of dark lines scattered among the rainbow colors. Those dark lines, or absorption lines, serve as a kind of fingerprint that tells us about the composition of the star’s atmosphere. We were using a multi-object spectrograph, which allows us to get up to 100 objects at a time. That sounds awesome, and it is. That said, this is what the raw spectra look like when we take them.

Each one of the gray stripes in the image is the spectrum of a different star in the cluster. They don’t look much like that. They’re more interesting when you use a graphics program to plot them.

That plot may not look much like the rainbow image above, but it actually contains as much information. Plotted left to right, this shows the spectrum of a star from blue to red. The downward spikes correspond to the dark lines in the rainbow images. The depth of the lines gives you information about abundances. The position of the lines relative to the light frequency can tell you such information as how fast the star is rotating, how far away it is, or even whether it has planets, all depending on the specific measurements you take.

So, the pictures we take aren’t always like those you see in the press releases on the web. Nevertheless, they do inspire dreams of faraway places and allow us to ferret out hidden information in the night sky. I’m not certain whether my daughter will ultimately choose a career in astronomy, but I am pretty sure we’ve given her something to dream about.

Westercon 70 Revisited

Last weekend was a long holiday for many folks in the United States as the country celebrated its 241st year of independence. As far as my “day” job at Kitt Peak National Observatory was concerned it was just an ordinary weekend—no extra days off for me. Fortunately, those days coincided with the dates of Westercon 70 in Tempe, Arizona. Westercon, otherwise known as the West Coast Regional Science Fantasy Conference, is held in a city in the Western United States, typically around Independence Day weekend. The last Westercon I was fortunate enough to attend was Westercon 62, which was also held in Tempe at the same hotel that hosted Westercon 70.

Westercon started on Saturday, July 1. My daughter, Autumn, and I went in early to make sure we could drop books off with Duncan’s Books and More, who kindly sold my books over the weekend. Also, I wanted to check in. Autumn was working the convention as a volunteer and wanted to see what she could do. As it turns out, it was a low-key morning with few events. I did get to spend some time chatting with Emily Devenport and Ernest Hogan. Programming coordinator Michael Senft also came by and introduced himself and chatted for a while. In the afternoon, I participated in a panel on “The Return of Space Opera.” Much of our discussion centered around defining space opera and much of our conclusion is that you know it’s kind of a know-it-when-you-see-it thing. We did note that a defining characteristic was grand scope and that space opera doesn’t require great science accuracy, but that you can certainly have scientifically accurate space opera!

Sunday was the day we decided to brave Phoenix heat in costume. I was actually dressed in a relatively light version of my normal steampunk attire. Autumn dressed as “Entropy,” spokesperson for her crochet store, Entropy Creations. Verity dressed as the night sky. Although it’s not altogether visible in the photo, her skirt is lighted with constellations she sewed in and wired herself.

Sunday was my big panel day. I started with a panel discussing the science of steampunk. The discussion began with panelists throwing out a steampunk gadget from their work while those with science backgrounds on the panel thought about how it might be may to work. From there, we moved on to a discussion of the nineteenth century technology that inspired us and how steampunk doesn’t necessarily require working technology—a good, internally consistent magic system can work just as well. This discussion was followed by a panel on the future of steampunk writing. Vaughn Treude, Arlys Holloway and I concluded that steampunk has a bright future because there are so many possibilities, but that it’s still waiting for its J.K. Rowling or Stephen King—an author so famous that they’re literally household names. We noted some are close, but haven’t quite crossed that threshold.

In the afternoon, I joined Thomas Watson, Ernest Hogan, and Weston Ochse for a fun panel about cryptids. The discussion opened up by defining a cryptid, which usually is a monster but one that people believe might exist and people claim to have seen, although there is no hard evidence. Ernest brought up that some cryptids do prove to be real. His example was gorillas, who were not proven until the middle of the nineteenth century. Because Westercon 70 was also known as Conalope, we also discussed the history of jackalopes and how they grew from a novelty item in tourist shops to even grander folklore. For example, homesteaders were told that they should wear stovepipes on their legs to prevent jackalopes from goring them. Also, apparently you can pacify a jackalope by giving it a shot of whiskey. In my research for the panel, I even learned that my home town of Las Cruces has its own cryptid, the elusive teratorn, a giant bird or pteranodon said to snatch up small animals or even children!

My final panel for the day was called “Alien Autopsy, the Biology of ET.” Dr. Bruce Davis, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Thomas Watson and Syd Logsdon joined me. Much of this panel was spent discussing the requirements for life and whether we might even recognize fellow lifeforms when we first see them. After the panels were over, it was time for the masquerade. MC for the show was Diana Given, one of the owners of Wild Wild West Con, an event I’m fond of attending in Tucson. Autumn volunteered as runner for the masquerade to deliver messages. Here you see her consulting with Weston Ochse, serving as one of the event’s judges. Some conventions have very large masquerades. This one was rather small. I suspect the summer heat in Tempe kept people from doing as much with costuming as they might. Still it was a fun event with a nice card trick performance as entertainment.

Monday of Westercon started with my exoplanet presentation, which always seems to draw a crowd. I was glad that Dr. Dave Williams was in the audience because he’s an expert in our solar system and helped me answer a few questions I didn’t know as well as he did. After the talk, I went for coffee with longtime friend Jeff Lewis. Jeff performed the part of Roberts back in our very first audio recording of The Pirates of Sufiro back in the 1990s. We discussed the state of science fiction, what we’ve been doing in writing and he introduced me to the program Scrivener. I’ve been hearing good things about the program and I’m trying it out now. I’ll see about giving a report of my impressions soon. That afternoon, I joined Madame Askew, Dirk Folmer, and Katherine Stewart for a steampunk free-for-all where we talked about what a dynamic culture it is, with everything from events, to games, to costumes, to gadgets to writing.

Independence Day itself started with a panel about putting the science in science fiction. We had a good discussion about researching science for your writing, but making sure your story doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail. After the panel, I went to an autographing session and signed some books.

As it turns out, Westercon was the same weekend as Libertycon, which was the official debut event for the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop and including stories by such luminaries as Jim Butcher, Jody Lynn Nye, Larry Correia, Sarah A. Hoyt, and Kevin J. Anderson. I’d already committed to Westercon when I learned about Libertycon, but still, I was pleased to be able to celebrate the release of the anthology by reading my story. I was pleased a few people came out to my reading. One of the folks in the audience asked, “Are all the stories in the book as good as yours?” She then said my reading was “Almost as good as Harlan Ellison.” That seemed like high praise to me! You can get a copy of Straight Outta Tombstone from your favorite local bookstore, or you can order it directly at: https://www.amazon.com/Straight-Outta-Tombstone-David-Boop-ebook/dp/B071JGTN3H/

Also at the reading, I gave a special sneak peak of the trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt we’re working on, noting that the trailer still very much a work in progress!

Overall, the event went well for me and I was glad to be part of it. I know behind the scenes there were snags and hiccups, but I’ve been behind the scenes of some book events and know how hard it is to keep everything moving forward. What’s especially impressive is that most, if not all, of the organizers are volunteers with other full-time jobs. Thanks for inviting me and thanks for putting on a good event.

Astronomy and Wildlife

I suspect one of the last things people consider when they think about working at an observatory is encountering wildlife. However, it can be a surprisingly common part of the job. During my last shift at Kitt Peak, I had two very close encounters with wild animals, both at the room where I stay. The first happened in the afternoon when I was heading out to do my laundry. I looked over to my left and saw a bobcat walking away from me. It stopped and looked at me, then continued on its way. Unfortunately, it vanished before I could get a photo. Two days later in the morning, I heard a rustling by the garbage can near my dorm room. I turned and looked out the window and a very disgruntled bear walked by, just outside my room. I was able to get a photo of the bear just before he disappeared into the woods.

Wildlife encounters aren’t limited to the wilder areas away from the telescopes. Sometimes wildlife visits us in the control rooms. I’ve seen ringtail cats on three separate occasions in observatory control rooms. For those not familiar with ringtails, they’re not actually cats, but a member of the raccoon family that lives in the desert southwest. One time, we saw a ringtail in the control room of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. He peered out at us through a hole in the ceiling tiles. Another time, I was working at the 2.1-meter telescope when a ringtail jumped out of the ceiling, landed by a computer, growled at us, and then disappeared into a conduit. Another time I looked over and saw a ringtail in the control room of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, peering out from behind a garbage can. This was especially remarkable, since the console room for the 4-meter is some twelve stories above the ground. As the observer and I were trying to figure out what to do about the animal, it disappeared down a conduit never to be seen again.

Famous astronomers are not immune from wildlife encounters. I once heard a story that Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, had finished observing one night at Lowell Observatory and was walking to his room in the dark. He saw what he thought was a dog and held out his hand to pet it. The animal backed away, growling. The next morning, a caretaker spoke to Tombaugh and said he’d seen some strange tracks in the snow. It appeared that someone had approached a mountain lion very closely!

Encounters like this helped to inspire a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where the telescope operator, Mike, encounters a raccoon at the telescope. I won’t give more details than that to avoid spoilers for the scene, but it’s the kind of reality from my day-to-day life at the observatory that I’ve tried to inject into the novel. You can learn more about the novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. And remember, you can learn about all of my books and short stories by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

The Biggest Explosions of All

I’ve spent a lot of time in my astronomy career pointing telescopes at some of the biggest explosions of all—type 1a supernovae. This kind of supernova starts with a white dwarf star and another star orbiting each other. White dwarfs are very dense stars at the end of their lives. The only objects more dense are neutron stars and black holes. The white dwarf’s gravity draws material off the companion star until it reaches critical mass and the whole thing explodes. One such star that I had the chance to observe in detail in was Supernova 2011fe in the galaxy M101. Here’s an image from the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak, one of the telescopes I used to observe this object. The supernova is the bright blue star outshining everything else in the upper right-hand part of the image.

Image by T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), H. Schweiker & S. Pakzad NOAO/AURA/NSF

These cosmic explosions are pretty interesting in their own right. Our own star is expected to end its life as a white dwarf and these explosions give us a glimpse at the hearts of these stellar corpses. These explosions are also one of the ways heavy elements formed in the cores of stars get distributed out into the universe. Supernova 2011fe was, in fact, one of the closest Type 1a supernovae we’ve ever observed. We caught the explosion soon after it happened, watched the supernova brighten to maximum, then start to fade away.

Type 1a supernovae also have another useful property. Because white dwarfs have a fairly uniform mass, the brightness of the explosion is also uniform. So, if every Type 1a supernova observed were placed at the same distance away from you, they would all, more or less, be the same brightness. This means that by measuring the apparent brightness of the supernova, you can figure out how far away it is. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but there are ways to calibrate that information based on the how fast the explosion brightens and fades.

Back in the 1990s, an astronomer named Saul Perlmutter was granted target-of-opportunity time on Kitt Peak telescopes. In this case, it meant if a type 1a supernova went off, he could ask the telescope to point to it and take an image and calibration data. He and his colleagues hoped to get distances to as many galaxies as possible. I helped acquire some of that data which was combined with a lot of other data from a lot of telescopes to provide evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Perlmutter would go on to share a Nobel prize with Adam Riess and Brian P. Schmidt for this work.

This is one of those discoveries that shows some of the true fun of science. We learned that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but that raises an even bigger question. Why is it accelerating? Typically that’s attributed to something called “Dark Energy.” This attribution isn’t meant to be an answer in itself. It’s meant to be a placeholder. It’s “Dark” energy because we don’t know precisely what kind of energy it really is, or even if it’s energy at all! Later this year, a new instrument called DESI will be installed on the Mayall 4-meter which will endeavor to get answers to some of those questions. But like all good science, I expect a veritable explosion of new questions raised for every answer we’re able to get.

The Danger of Honesty

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King writes, “Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all … as long as you tell the truth.” And this perhaps, is one of the scariest aspects of writing fiction, especially if you create a fictional world close to the one you inhabit.

In my most recent novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, I write about an astronomical observatory similar to several I’ve worked at. There is always a danger of creating characters in a setting where you work, especially when that setting is a relatively small community. People will have a tendency to draw comparisons between characters in the book and real world characters, no matter how carefully I tried to assure that no one had the same name or exact characteristics of someone I know.

Another challenge is that in my experience, astronomers tend to be idealized in fiction. They’re often portrayed as heroes, or at least people who always try to do the right thing. Sometimes they’re portrayed as selflessly devoted to the pursuit of science. If they err, it’s because they put science ahead of everything else.

Of course, we also live in an era where certain politicians want to vilify science or scientists. They want to dismiss well established findings to justify their actions or lack of action in the political arena. It’s important, though, to understand that the process of science is designed to preserve the integrity of science in spite of the personalities of individual scientists.

One of the things I was committed to in The Astronomer’s Crypt was portraying the astronomers as real, fallible human beings. Some are good guys, some are selfish and arrogant. They all have real human problems which both motivate them and lead them astray. Because the media has given us strong preconceptions, I suspect some people will look at the book and see me putting scientists on a pedestal. Some will look at the book and see me as talking trash about people I’ve known.

In fact, my goal was simply to follow Stephen King’s advice and tell the truth as best as I see it.

If you dare to take a walk on this dangerous journey through the truth, you can learn more about the book and find places to order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html