Chargers

No, this isn’t a post about a football team that started in Los Angeles, moved to San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles. This past week, I operated the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. About halfway through the week, the charger circuit on the telescope failed. The WIYN is a telescope with a 3.5-meter primary mirror, making it the second largest aperture optical telescope at the observatory. This large telescope needs to track the sky as smoothly as possible to get the precise measurements we make of astronomical objects. Because of that, the motors don’t actually work off a power cord plugged into the wall that could be subject to brown outs or power spikes. Instead, we have a charger circuit that charges up a set of small batteries. The telescope drives actually are powered by the batteries, shown in the photo to the left.

Although I have some experience with electronics, I’m not actually an electrical engineer. When failures like this occur, my job is less to make a repair, but to see if I can find a way to limp along for the rest of the night and continue to take data in spite of the trouble. However, the circuit is so fundamental to the telescope’s operation and the problem bad enough that I couldn’t even limp along. We had to close up and wait for more expert help in the daytime.

Fortunately, our expert electronics crew was able to repair the charger circuit in less than a day, so we were back on sky and taking spectra of galaxy clusters the next night. What has always amazed me about the charger circuit on the WIYN telescope is that a bank of relatively small batteries can move a 3.5-meter telescope. Those batteries need to move the telescope in three axes. The obvious axes are altitude and azimuth. As WIYN tracks the sky, images rotate in the field of view, so there’s also a rotator that keeps north up in the images.

The charger system strikes me as a metaphor for my approach to seeking inspiration for my writing. The charger system takes current from the wall in whatever form it exists, uses it to charge batteries, which change the form of the current to produce good telescope motion. I take inspiration from my work in astronomy, from the books I read, the movies I see, and my time interacting with friends and family, allow myself to process that through my brain and turn that into the stories and novels I write.

I have taken variable star data with telescopes that use wind-up clock drives and that has helped to inspire and inform clockwork gadgets in my steampunk stories. I once helped an astronomer to take one of the deepest images of the center of our galaxy in the infrared, which helped me to imagine a voyage to the center of the galaxy in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. Working late nights on a lonely mountain top in meandering buildings informs my horror. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about some things that have inspired your writing in the comments below.

Explore the worlds I’ve created at http://www.davidleesummers.com

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CoKoCon 2018

This weekend finds me at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. Next weekend, I’ll be at CoKoCon in Phoenix, Arizona. CoKoCon is the combined CopperCon and Con Kopelli run in tandem by the Central Arizona Speculative Fiction Society and the Western Science Fiction Association. It’s being held at the Doubletree by Hilton Phoenix North. You can find more information at cokocon.org

The author guest of honor is Harry Turtledove. The local author guest of honor is Beth Cato. The artist guest of honor is Steve Rude. Cheshire Moon are the filk guests of honor and Eric Wile is the gaming guest of honor. Because of my observatory schedule, I can only attend two days of CoKoCon. So if you can attend, I hope to see you on Friday or Saturday. Even though I’m only able to be there on Friday and Saturday, I have a pretty full schedule as shown below.

Friday, August 31

  • 5-6pm – Canyon Room 4 – Discovering New Worlds. In a presentation that’s become something of a standby at Arizona conventions, I discuss what we know about planets outside the solar system. How many have we found? What are they like?
  • 6-7pm – Book Signing. I’ll be in the book signing area and available to sign books for you.

Saturday, September 1

  • 9:30-10:30am – Canyon Room 4 – Robots are from Mars, Dinosaurs are from Venus. A look at the astronomy and paleontology of the Victorian era, what people thought life on alien planets was like, what dinosaurs were like, and how they influenced the science fiction of the day.
  • 11am-noon – Canyon Room 3 – Punked. There was cyberpunk, then steampunk (although that’s debatable). Now there’s clockpunk, decopunk, dieselpunk and, most recently, solarpunk. We help you navigate these sub-sub-sub-genres and make sense of all these punks messing up history and the future. On the panel with me are Jenn Czep, Rhonda Parrish, and Cynthia Ward.
  • 2-3pm – Canyon Room 4 – Steampunk in the Round. What is it that makes steampunk a lasting trend? We’ll discuss the evolution of steampunk and ask how we might see it in a few years, the literary and media side of steampunk, the commercial side of Steampunk and the splinter divisions of steampunk. Q&A with audience. On the panel with me are Dirk Folmer, Kurt Khave, Christen Pike, and Gary Sollars.
  • 3:30-4:30pm – Canyon Room 3 – More than Airships. It’s not just flying anachronisms; steampunk is an aesthetic. Beth Cato leads our panel of authors in examining the style and the tropes of this whimsical version of alternate hist
    ory. Joining Beth and me are Cynthia Ward and Ashley Carlson.
  • 5-6pm – Book Signing. I’ll be available to sign my books in the convention signing area before I have to leave for a work week at Kitt Peak National Observatory.
  • If you attend the convention, you can find my books in the dealer’s room at Duncan’s Books and More. I look forward to seeing you there!

Bubonicon 50

Next weekend, I’ll be a panelist and dealer at Bubonicon 50 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bubonicon is Albuquerque’s premier science fiction convention and this year in honor of its golden anniversary, it’s looking back at the Golden Age of science fiction. The co-guests of honor are Mary Robinette Kowal and John Scalzi. The toastmaster is Lee Moyer and the artist guest of honor is Eric Velhagen. The convention will be held from Friday, August 24 through Sunday, August 26 at the Albuquerque Mariott Uptown. You can get more information about the convention at bubonicon.com

My schedule for the convention is as follows:

Friday, August 24

  • 4-5pm – Main Room – What the Future Looked Like: Then and Now. What did the future look like in the “Golden Age” of SF? And how does it look now? What has changed? Is there more or less fear of Atomic Apocalypse now? Did any books or films of the 1940s-50s accurately predict some of today’s technology or ecological/sociological situations? Did anyone back then predict the power and influence of social media? And what kind of world will we live in come 2070, at least as predicted now? What inventions have been “predicted” by SF writers? The panel will be moderated by Craig Butler. On the panel with me are Arlan Andrews Sr, Sarena Ulibari, and Walter Jon Williams.
  • 9-10pm – Main Room – Do Ray Guns and Rocket Ships Still Spark the Imagination? Back in the Pulp Era and then the Golden Age of Science Fiction, ray guns, robots and rockets inspired a generation of space exploration, and leaps in science and technology. Do these icons and their modern counterparts still inspire our young folks? Has it all become fluff without substance? And how have these iconic items changed between 1945 and now? I’ll be moderating this panel. On the panel are Mary Robinette Kowal, Cynthia Felice, Laura J. Mixon, and Robert E. Vardeman.

Saturday, August 25

  • 10-11am – Main Room – The Changing Role of the Editor. With the various ways that fiction is published (print/online/audio/self-pubbed), how is the role of editor changing? Does the editor need to be more technician than tweaking expert these days? Is self-publishing making the editor’s job obsolete? Why or why not? What can a good editor do for a writer? What steps can you take to improve your own editing? When do you really need outside help? To what extent can authors really self-edit effectively? The panel will be moderated by Sarena Ulibari. On the panel with me are John Barnes, Jeffe Kenedy, and Gabi Stevens.
  • 3-4pm – Main Room – The Death of Stars and Planets. In this panel, we’ll be discussing the different ways stars and planets can meet their end and what happens after they meet their end. Is there life after death for stars and planets? The panel will be moderated by Loretta Hall. Also on the panel will be Kathy Kitts and Cathy S. Plesko.

Sunday, August 26

  • 10-11am – Salon A-D – The Shifting View of Science. How has our view of science changed since Science Fiction’s Golden Age? How has that affected the SF that’s written and published? Are we more optimistic or pessimistic about science today than then? Has our view of science become more realistic? The panel will be moderated by Cathy S. Plesko. On the panel with me will be Kathy Kitts, M.T. Reiten, and Caroline Spector.
  • 1:30-2:30pm – Santa Fe Room – 55 Minutes with David Lee Summers. I’ll read from Straight Outta Tombstone and Owl Riders. Since the room will have a screen and a projector, I may even show some slides!

If you’re in Albuquerque next weekend, I hope you’ll drop by Bubonicon. When I’m not at one of the events above, you’ll likely find me at Hadrosaur Productions’ dealer’s table in the Flea Market. Be sure to stop by and see what new things we have to offer.

The Circle of (a Writer’s) Life

On Friday, I typed “The End” at the bottom of the last page of my latest book, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The book collects previously published stories of a space pirate captain named Ellison Firebrandt and his crew and adds some new stories to create what amounts to a “fix-up novel.” Each chapter is a short story, but the whole thing forms a complete story arc.

Like typing “The End” on most books, this really represents the beginning of the road to publication for this book. In this case, I don’t expect editing to be quite as arduous as some books I’ve worked on. Many of the original stories have been edited by such people as Hugo-nominated editors Jennifer Brozek and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. Of course, the new stories will need a critical eye and care will need to be taken to make sure the stories all work together as a whole. For those who want an early look, chapters 1 and 12 are available for anyone to read at my Patreon site. Thirteen chapters are available to read for all patrons—and it only costs $1.00 per month to be a patron. You may cancel at any time. I plan to share the last two stories this month. The site is: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Now these chapters are likely to get tweaked as beta readers and my editor work their way through it, but your support will help me pay cover artist Laura Givens and help pay the costs of editing and typesetting the book. What’s more, to show my appreciation, I plan to share a gift code with my patrons that will allow them to download the complete book once finished. I’ve also adjusted my Patreon goals. One of those goals is that with sufficient support, I can make this blog ad free.

As it turns out, I finished this book the day after I received news that I had been promoted from “Observing Associate” at Kitt Peak National Observatory to “Senior Observing Associate.” In essence, the promotion recognizes my seniority at the observatory plus the work I’ve been doing with the on-line manuals for my fellow operations’ staff.

These moments coming together do cause me to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m going. I worked in astronomy full time from 1990 until 2000. At which point, I decided to devote myself to writing and editing full time. I did that until 2008 when staff members at Kitt Peak asked me if I wanted to return. I agreed under the provision that writing was recognized as my primary career. So far, my supervisors have been very supportive of this. I also returned because I feel astronomy is a way that I contribute to the larger body of human knowledge. My position as an astronomer and a writer allows me to communicate some of what we learn to the public through appearances at conventions and through this blog. This broader support mission is not part of my job, though, it’s supported through sales of my books and Patreon supporters.

My schedule at the observatory is not all that flexible, it involves working long nights, and those nights often require full concentration. My pay is pretty good for living in the southwest, but even with the most recent raise, it’s still below the average salary in the US according the Census Bureau. I note this just to point out that despite my full-time job, I’m not a well-to-do hobbyist. I do need support from sources like book sales and Patreon to continue publishing and to afford travel to events.

So, looking ahead, I’ll spend this fall polishing Firebrandt’s Legacy for publication. I’m scheduled to appear at several events including Bubonicon in Albuquerque, CoKoCon in Phoenix, TusCon in Tucson plus I’ll be signing books next month at a local bookstore. More about each of those soon.

I’m also working on some projects that I can’t discuss yet and am not entirely sure when I’ll be able to announce them or whether they’ll bear fruit at all. I say this less to tease you and more to say I am working on things in the background. In the meantime, as I announced on July 21, after Firebrandt’s Legacy is complete, I do plan to turn my attention to a new edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which was my very first novel. In a way, “The End” on Firebrandt’s Legacy has caused me to spiral back to the first book I wrote and I hope to take what I’ve learned on life’s journey so far and make it an even better book. Whether it’s through my books, appearances at conventions, Patreon, the web journal or some combination, I hope you’ll come along with me for this exciting journey.

Pretty Planets All in a Row

This is a great time to view planets in the night sky. Four of the five naked-eye planets are visible right now and the fifth will be reappearing around the middle of the month. The night starts with Venus in the west, setting about two hours after sunset. It’s followed by Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Around August 20, Mercury should be visible in the eastern sky just before sunrise. What’s more, Mars is near opposition, its closest approach to the Earth. In fact, it’s the closest Mars has been to the Earth since 2003 and it’ll be 17 years before Mars is this close again.

Although I operate two large telescopes for the National Observatory, I don’t get many opportunities to look at just anything I’d like. Most of the time, if I want to look at planets, I need to do so with my old reliable 8-inch Celestron telescope in my backyard. Fortunately, because this planetary show is happening in the summer and in the early evening, it’s actually pretty comfortable to sit outside with the telescope. Also, ever since my wife bought me an Orion Starshoot camera, I’m able to share my views with you.

It’s monsoon season here in New Mexico, so that often means clouds in the evening. I missed getting any views of Venus, but I did manage to get images of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is especially fun, because they are also the planets the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus visits in my novel The Solar Sea. Each of the planet pictures below is shown at the same scale, so you get a sense for how big they appear relative to each other in my telescope’s eyepiece.

Mars is the planet furthest in the east and the last of the three I observed. It was a little disappointing in that I didn’t see a lot of surface features. You can see one of the polar caps and some contrast between dark and light areas. Some of this is no doubt due to a planet-wide dust storm which has been engulfing the planet for the last month. I gather that dust storm is finally beginning to die down, so there’s a chance we’ll get better views later in the month while Mars is still close. In a way, this was kind of cool because one of the dangers the crew of the Aristarchus faced in The Solar Sea was a dust storm, albeit a somewhat more localized one than the planet is currently experiencing.

Jupiter was quite lovely and helped to demonstrate that the seeing—the atmospheric stability—wasn’t the reason Mars was somewhat washed out. The very best view of Jupiter I’ve had is through the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. It’s one of the few telescopes of that class with an eyepiece adapter, so I have had occasion to actually go out in the dome and look at objects through the telescope. This is probably about the clearest I’ve seen the bands of Jupiter through my backyard telescope and I was pleased to see the great red spot. In The Solar Sea, the crew of the Aristarchus makes a point of flying over the red spot. It’s the largest, longest lasting storm in the solar system. If I went to Jupiter, I’d have to get close, though I wouldn’t want to be in it!

Of course, the real star of the show, as it often is, was Saturn. This is by far the best photograph I’ve ever taken of Saturn. I was pleased to capture Cassini’s Division in the rings along with a band on the planet’s surface. The only time I’ve ever seen Saturn better was when I had the opportunity to look through the 24-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory a couple of years ago. As it turns out, Saturn is the object of the quest in The Solar Sea. Thomas Quinn, who designs and builds the Aristarchus, discovers powerful particles near Saturn that appear to be able to travel through time. It turns out there’s more to these particles than meets the eye!

The Solar Sea is on my mind not just because of these pretty planets all in a row. It turns out that as of last week, copies are now for sale at the Kitt Peak National Observatory visitor center, alongside the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. Be sure to look for a copy next time you visit. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a visit to Kitt Peak to pick up a copy of The Solar Sea, you can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Assembling the Puzzle

This has been another week helping to install the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument or DESI at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. In short, the goal of DESI is to study the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. We plan to collect spectra of tens of billions of galaxies and quasars with the goal of making a three-dimensional map of the universe out to about 11 billion light years. You can read more about the DESI project at https://www.desi.lbl.gov/

The DESI project is spearheaded by Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California and being installed at Kitt Peak in Arizona. However, it really represents a worldwide collaboration. There are scientists working on this project from England, France, Spain, Italy, South Korea, China, France, Canada, Colombia, Australia, and others plus numerous institutions within the United States. All of these agencies are not only contributing expertise, but actually building components that will go into the finished instrument.

In an earlier post, I spoke about how we worked to remove the Mayall telescope’s original top end. The top end originally housed both a secondary mirror and a prime focus camera. Both of these have been used to make groundbreaking discoveries over the last five decades. The Mayall was the telescope Vera Rubin used to study rotation curves of galaxies, which led to the discovery of dark matter. I’ve helped with observations that have led to the confirmation of numerous exoplanets. We’re now replacing the telescope’s original top end with a new one that will hold 5000 fibers at prime focus. Each of those fibers will run to spectrographs that will break up the light from objects in the sky so it may be analyzed and the position of the object can be measured. In the photo above, you can see the new top end being assembled to the left of the telescope.

To get light from the sky onto the fibers, the telescope will collect it with the primary mirror. That sits in the big white structure at the center of the big blue horseshoe-like structure in the photo above. The mirror will direct that light to the top end. Because the mirror is curved, allowing the light to be collected and redirected, it means the focus changes across the field of view. To deal with that, you need to put some lenses in front of the fibers, sort of like glasses. Another real world problem of telescopes is that as you point toward the horizon, light gets spread out. So you need optics to compensate for where you’re pointing in the sky. Sort of like glasses that automatically adjust themselves for where you’re looking.

Scientists from England assembled those specialized “glasses” for the telescope. Those arrived last week and I was on hand during their assembly at Kitt Peak. You see those assembled optics in the lower photo. Scientists from Italy built the “Hexapod” pointing system, which keeps those optics aligned. That arrived and was tested about a month ago. Scientists from Fermilab in Chicago are responsible for integrating those systems and putting them together in the top end ring. That process will start next week. It’s all quite a puzzle and it’s been remarkable to see it all come together. It’ll be even more amazing to see what science it yields.

Of course, work at Kitt Peak helps to inspire my science fiction. As a reminder, this is the last weekend of the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale. You can learn about my science fiction books that are on sale at:

We also have fantasy and steampunk titles on sale. You can learn about them at:

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.