Ramping up the Refit

This past week, I’ve continued my work supporting the refit of the Mayall 4-meter telescope for the upcoming DESI spectrograph. DESI is the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument and it will be capable of measuring of the spectra of 5000 objects at a time. Its mission objective is to collect data to help us understand the nature of Dark Energy in the universe. We don’t yet know what Dark Energy is, all we really know is that appears to make the expansion of the universe accelerate with time. To be able to collect these 5000 spectra, the telescope needs a new top end. Indeed, the first thing I saw when I came to work on Monday morning was the old top end sitting on a flatbed trailer outside the telescope being ready to go into storage.

The Mayall 4-meter is a reflecting telescope and the primary optical component is a big 4-meter diameter mirror at the bottom. The light from that mirror is then focused at that top end and either collected by a camera sitting there at “prime focus” or a sent down to an instrument underneath the telescope using a secondary mirror. The top end held both the prime focus and the secondary mirror and could be flipped end-for-end to allow either to happen. DESI will have its 5000 fibers in a new top end and indeed, part of the reason for selecting the Mayall was to have a telescope sturdy enough to handle that large an instrument. At the moment, the telescope is missing its top end, but the new one will be installed soon. There are work platforms, which enabled people to loosen the old top end so it could be lifted out with a crane. The work platforms also keep the telescope structurally stable while there’s no top end in place.

The top end only holds part of the instrument. It will have 5000 optical fibers which may be precisely positioned onto target objects. The light from those fibers is sent along the fibers to spectrographs in an environmentally controlled room where the light will be spread out and photographed so it can be analyzed. In the dark energy survey itself, most people will be looking at the so-called redshift—how far the characteristic spectral “fingerprint” of certain chemicals shifts to the red as a result of its velocity away from us. However, those same chemical fingerprints may be used to understand properties of the objects being looked at and this data will be available to anyone who wants to use it.

Because dark energy is an exciting topic in its own right, but also because this project will be generating so much raw data that’s useful to so many astronomers, it’s a major worldwide undertaking. To break the light from the fibers into spectra will require ten spectrographs which will reside in a carefully climate-controlled room. An exciting milestone I got to watch this week, was unpacking the first of those spectrographs when it arrived from France. Below, you can see the engineers inspecting the optical elements. Note the rainbow visible on the corrector plate of the right-most optical element. That’s exactly what this device is built to do! Break the light into rainbows.

Today finds me in Phoenix, Arizona for Leprecon 44. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by and check out some of the panels and workshops.

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The Cost of Opening the Crypt…

…just went down! Courtesy of my publisher, the ebook edition of The Astronomer’s Crypt is being offered for the special price of 99 cents for the rest of the month. The ebook normally runs $4.99, so this is a remarkable 80% discount, which means it’s a great time to pick up a copy for your ereader. If you’re already a fan, consider gifting one to a friend!

The Astronomer’s Crypt tells the story of astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from Apache legend colliding at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. As followers of the web journal know, I’m an astronomer who operates telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The observatory is 56 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. The last ten miles of the drive up to the observatory are up a road that winds and twists its way up the mountain. Once you reach the summit, you find a virtual city consisting of twenty-two optical telescopes and two radio telescopes. Even so, after the sun goes down, many of the telescopes on the mountain are automated and some are only operated part time. It’s not unusual for there to be only a handful of people at the observatory at night. That all noted, Kitt Peak is both quite accessible and quite well staffed compared to some astronomical facilities where I’ve worked.

I have worked many nights in my career at observatories where I’ve been one of perhaps two or three people on a remote mountain site. It’s dark. The insides are the buildings are kept deliberately dim so your eyes can adjust if you need to go outside and evaluate sky conditions. In a wilderness situation, wild animals can and do make it inside the buildings. It’s so quiet, you hear every creak and groan of the building. You’re working late at night and you’re tired and not always thinking clearly. You’re trying to focus on the data you’re taking. It’s easy for a person in those conditions to imagine many scary things.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is a book made up of many of those dark imaginings, some of which are not far from the truth. Over the years, I’ve encountered unexpected people at observatories during the night. Fortunately, most have been cooperative and left when asked, but I have wondered what I’d do if I encountered truly bad people. I’ve been to observatories such as Lowell in Flagstaff, where there are real mausoleums on the site, where people who loved astronomy are interred. It’s not hard to imagine ghosts wandering around at those places. I’ve been through many terrible storms, sometimes with sheets of rain pushed by winds in excess of 70 miles per hour. On those nights, nature itself is terrifying. You can get a sense for how all of this combines in the novel by watching the trailer:

Two years before the events of this trailer, on a stormy night, in the dead of winter, Mike Teter experienced something that would change his life forever. Mike was a telescope operator at the world renowned Carson Peak Observatory in New Mexico. I won’t tell you what he saw that night on the mountain nor what happened afterward on a dark stretch of highway, because it would haunt you just as it has haunted Mike. But what I will tell you is that Mike is back at Carson Peak. And what he witnessed that night two years ago is about to become a reality…

You can pick up The Astronomer’s Crypt for just 99 cents at:

A Vampire in Daylight

In my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order, I introduced Daniel McKee, a vampire who works as a telescope operator. In my novels, the vampires often need to find ways to earn incomes since I’ve always been a bit skeptical that it’s easy to stash away vast amounts of wealth given nothing but time. Of course, being vampires, my characters must find night work, which can be a challenge, especially in some professions. Fortunately, Daniel was an astronomer when he became a vampire, so his progression to an all-nighttime position wasn’t difficult.

Daniel is autobiographical only in the sense that he’s a telescope operator. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the Mayall 4-meter is undergoing a major refit. The entire top ring in the picture above will be coming off and replaced with a new top ring that holds 5000 optical fibers which will be used to collect light from millions of objects around the sky. Because the refit is so extensive and so time-consuming, there’s no nighttime work to do on the telescope, so those of us who work as telescope operators have been spending one shift a month supporting the refit operation during the day. I find myself wondering what Daniel would make of that!

In fact, Daniel would probably quit to find an operator’s position elsewhere. Otherwise, he might find work to do that would allow him to remain on a nighttime schedule, such as programming or manual writing. Sadly, Daniel would miss out on a fascinating engineering endeavor and some good camaraderie. In the photo above, the engineering crew is installing a scaffolding that will give them access to the telescope’s top end. However, the scaffolding isn’t just for access. It will help hold the telescope struts in place after the current top ring is removed and before the new one is installed. It will be sturdy to support people and to assure that the telescope will function after this exercise is over.

What’s more, observatories require more than night time staff to function. There is a large contingent of people who work at the observatory during the daytime. They support the infrastructure, such as water services, electricity, and internet. They provide engineering support, keeping the telescopes operational years after construction when original parts are no longer manufactured and the telescope must be upgraded to work with new electronics. This is a great team of people that I unfortunately don’t get to interact with on most nights because they go home right as I’m starting my work day. So it has been great to get to know some of these “unseen” co-workers.

Sadly once you become a vampire, even good people can look like a tasty treat, so perhaps it’s just as well Daniel wouldn’t interact with the observatory’s day staff, but I’m delighted I’ve had the opportunity!

You can read more about Daniel’s adventures in Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html

The adventures of the Scarlet Order before Daniel became a member are featured in Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. Read a sample chapter and learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

I will be signing both of these novels next month on the Friday, May 25 at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans, Louisiana from 3-6pm. That’s the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. I’ll also be doing a special reading from the novels afterwards at Potions, an amazing speakeasy bar nearby. Be sure to drop by the signing to learn more about the reading. Mark your calendars!

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.

Refitting the Mayall: Teardown

I was in 8th grade when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out. One of the things that fascinated me in that movie was the refit of the Starship Enterprise. I was captivated by how the ship looked at once much the same and yet completely different. It looked sleeker and more powerful and familiar space on the ship such as the bridge, sickbay, and the transporter room had all been updated. I’m getting to experience something much like the Enterprise refit in real life. In this case, I’m involved in refitting the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Like the Starship Enterprise, the Mayall has a forty-five year history of discovery. Originally built to use photographic plates, the telescope has played an important role in such discoveries as establishing the role of dark matter in the Universe from measurements of galaxy rotation, and determining the scale and structure of the Universe. Over the years, new instrumentation has been added to the telescope including advanced digital cameras and spectrographs.

The purpose of the refit is to install a new instrument called DESI, which stands for Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. 5000 optical fibers will be installed at the telescope’s prime focus (the top end of the telescope) and run to cameras in another room. The goal is to observe tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a three-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years.

In order to achieve this goal, the entire top end of the telescope has to be replaced and much of the control software and electronics are being redone so that it’s truly state of the art. To achieve this goal, we literally have to gut the telescope and install new components from the inside out. During my most recent shifts at the telescope, I’ve been involved in just that. In the photo to the right, you can see that the bottom of the telescope is missing and replaced with scaffolding. That’s because the large 4-meter mirror is out for recoating. Also, all the optics are missing from the secondary mirror assembly at the top of the telescope. Ultimately, that will be removed completely and replaced with a new secondary ring. The men in the photo are removing a counterweight assembly used to precisely balance the telescope when instruments are added and removed. Electrical panels are open on the side of the telescope where control cabling going back to the photographic days will be removed and replaced with new control cabling. Modern electronics mean the telescope will have about 10% of the cables as it did when originally built!

The refit has also allowed me a rare opportunity to see parts of the telescope I’ve never been to before, even after operating it for some thirteen years. Earlier this week I got to help the electronics technicians work on some cabling in the “horseshoe.” That’s the big, blue horseshoe-shaped mount you see in the photos above. We actually ended up working down in the broad, blue, oval-shaped tube you see in the photo just above. I dubbed it the sinking submarine, because it’s a cramped space and we were standing at a 32-degree angle relative to the ground!

It’s going to be exciting to watch the telescope take shape again after the teardown process. New parts will be arriving in the coming months. A large crane will be deployed outside the 4-meter to lift out the old secondary ring and bring in the new one. The plan is to be back on sky to test components of the new instrument later this year. Once those tests are completed, other components will be finished, revised if needed and then installed. At that point, the Mayall’s new five-year mission to map the universe will begin.


Revisiting Contact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning to the VLA

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

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

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

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

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

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