The Pointing Dance

This week, I have been engaged in an important, albeit tedious activity at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. I have been building pointing maps. Telescopes are large, bulky machines that have to point with extreme precision and track the almost literal clockwork motion of the sky. They are engineered carefully, but like any machine they are subject to wear and tear. What’s more, to keep getting the best science, telescopes have to be upgraded from time to time. This changes the telescope’s behavior with time.

The WIYN Telescope ready for a night of collecting pointing data

Because the Earth turns constantly, the sky overhead appears to move at a constant rate. To keep objects in the telescope’s field of view, the earliest telescopes were literally mounted to clocks that moved at the sky’s rate. To make these work, you have to imagine a line in the sky that’s a projection of the Earth’s equator. Then you have to tilt your tracking axis to be at the same angle as that imaginary line in the sky. Another way to think about it is that here at Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’re at 32 degrees north latitude, so you have to tilt your telescope 32 degrees up from the southern horizon to track the sky.

Now, if you look at the photo of the WIYN Telescope above, you’ll notice that it’s mounted flat to the floor and it’s not tipped to match our latitude. That’s because it’s expensive to engineer big heavy telescopes so they can be tipped up at an angle. So, the WIYN telescope actually has to track the sky in two axes: azimuth and elevation, kind of like a radar mount. To track the sky, we have to use computers to adjust the tracking rates constantly. The computers only know how fast to track in each axis if they know where we’re pointing in the sky. If there’s an error in pointing, there’s also an error in tracking.

When I tell people I’m a writer and an astronomer who operates telescopes, it’s often assumed that I have lots of free time on quiet nights at the telescope to write. That doesn’t happen on nights of pointing maps. Instead, it’s a busy night of pointing to a star, noting how far off it was from where we expected it and then moving on again. We do this for anywhere from 75 to 100 stars with a telescope like WIYN and the exercise takes about half the night.

The way pointing and tracking are interconnected also make me think of how I use outlines as a writer. With the telescope, we can imagine that I point to a star and correct the pointing at one spot, then let the telescope track. If the computer thinks the star will be a different point in an hour than it really will be, it will track toward that different point and it won’t follow the star. You need to know where the star really will be in an hour.

For me, an outline is like a little like a pointing map. It tells me where the plot is at point A and it tells me where I want to be once I reach point B. With the telescope, it better be pointed at the star at both points A and B. An outline is more flexible. It’s more like a guideline. I try to listen to my characters when I write my outlines and make sure that points A and B make sense for them. However, sometimes as I write, I find characters do things I didn’t quite imagine the first time. The beauty of an outline is I can change point B. The challenge is that when I do, I realize I may also have to change points C, D, and E as the plot progresses!

I’ve been having a lot of fun rewriting my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release. I actually wrote some of the original draft when the WIYN telescope was first being built in the 1990s. Rewriting the book is the ultimate case of writing to an outline, especially since I don’t want to change it so much that people can’t pick up older editions of the sequels and follow them. I’m expanding the story and letting my characters breathe more. I’m letting them guide me and asking if what they did entirely made sense for those characters. I’m taking them from point A to point B. Those points can’t really deviate, but I do allow myself to add points A.1, A.2, and A.3 to better explain how they moved from point A to point B.

You can read chapters from the previous edition and see how I’m following my version of a “pointing map” by following me Patreon. My site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Practice Makes Perfect

I spent last week at Kitt Peak National Observatory assisting with the installation of the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument on the Mayall 4-meter Telescope. We spent a couple of months running the refurbished telescope through its paces on the sky with a simple commissioning camera and now it’s time to finish installing the complete instrument. As we get ready to install this complex array of 5000 robot-positioned fibers that feed ten spectrographs, I find myself thinking of the old saw “practice makes perfect.” Well, how exactly do you practice building and installing an instrument no one has built and installed before? As it turns out, there are ways to do this.

One of the major tasks this week has been “dummy” petal installation. The photo above shows a view of the 4-meter telescope from the top. We’re facing the primary mirror (which is covered with white covers that say “Danger: No Step”). In front of that, and right in front of the camera is the prime focus assembly. The 4-meter mirror focuses light into the prime focus assembly. In the old days, a camera sat there. Now there will be 5000-optical fibers aligned with objects on the sky by robot positioners. Those robot positioners are quite delicate and take up a lot of room, so a test petal has been created. The petals fit in the pie-shaped wedges you see in the photo. The dummy petal is the one with Swiss cheese, like holes. It’s carefully guided into position by the red mechanical assembly. Lasers are used to make sure the petal is positioned very carefully and put in at just the right place. Here’s what one of the real petals looks like.

The entire fiber petal sits in the silver box. The black structure on the right is the same size and shape as the Swiss cheese dummy petal. Behind that is a tightly packed array of delicate fibers. The real petal above will have to be placed precisely without breaking anything. So, in this case, we practice by creating a mockup to try out all the procedures and check that we know what we’re doing before we start installing all the really delicate, expensive instrumentation. There will be ten petals like the one in the photo above and light from their fibers will go down to ten spectrographs two floors below the telescope. We currently have six of those spectrographs installed in a clean room.

Currently, three of the spectrographs are in the lower layer of racks. Three are in the upper layer of racks. The spectrographs are where the real science happens. Light that comes down the fibers is spread apart into a literal rainbow and we can see the characteristic fingerprint of the chemical elements of the objects that each fiber in the spectrograph is pointed to.

The spectrographs and the petals remind us that practice makes perfect when you do things repeated times. We’re practicing with the dummy petal, but then we’ll install ten real petals. We’ve installed six spectrographs and we have four more to go. Each time we take another step forward, the easier the process becomes.

Of course, practice made perfect on our way to building these spectrographs in the first place. We built other, smaller fiber spectrographs and learned lessons from their construction. We’ve learned about robotics and we’ve learned lessons from other people who also work in the field by following their work.

Writing is much like this. You practice by doing. You might start with some short stories to get the hang of writing. Then you might try your hand at a novel chapter, then you’ll write another. All the while, you should keep reading to see what others are doing and have done. You’ll learn techniques as you try them out. You will likely encounter difficulties, but as you keep reading, you’ll be sensitive to those difficulties and you’ll see how others have solved them. This is just one of the ways that science has taught me to be a better writer and being a writer has taught me to be better at the science work I do.

You can learn more about my writing at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Seeing Daylight Once Again

As I write this, the DESI Commissioning Instrument run at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory will be nearing completion. The Commissioning Instrument is an array of five digital cameras that view the sky through the telescope’s new optics. Once the Commissioning Instrument comes off, the actual DESI fibers and robot positioners will be assembled at the focal plane. This is a process that’s estimated to take about three months to complete. During that time, I’ll be returning to day shifts at the Mayall telescope, helping with the installation. The DESI fiber “wedges” are starting to arrive and assembly has actually begun on some components down on the telescope’s ground floor.

There is a terrific video describing the DESI project and showing these wedges being populated with the fibers in the lab that you can watch at: https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2018/10/17/dark-energy-project-robots-3d-map-universe/

The DESI fibers are the business end of getting light from distant galaxies where it needs to go to be analyzed. Light traveling for billions of light years will be sent through those fibers to be separated and photographed by spectrographs. Before light gets to the fibers, it has to be collected by the telescope, where it will pass through an optical corrector lens. The corrector makes sure that when the telescope is focused, each fiber will also see an equally focused object. Of course, to do this, the whole instrument has to be aligned well with the primary mirror so we know each target lines up with a fiber.

The goal of the Commissioning Instrument is to give us a simple camera that lets us check that the corrector lens is doing its job. It also allows us to test the alignment and focus mechanism, which we call the hexapod. We want to make sure these critical components work before going to all the work of assembling all those fibers at the top of the telescope. In fact, during the Commissioning Instrument run, we discovered that the corrector was eight millimeters too close to the primary mirror. This was a result of telescope blueprints from 1973 not being updated with as-built specs. Eight millimeters may not sound like much, but it’s enough to keep the fibers from being in focus during the warmest nights of the year! So, the hexapod and corrector assembly were moved, which is much easier to do now than when all the fibers are in place.

I have enjoyed my day shifts at the Mayall this past year. It’s given me a chance to interact with more of the maintenance and engineering crew than I normally do in my nighttime operations. I won’t be working exclusively during the daytime. I will still spend one week a month supporting nighttime observations at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. If you would like a behind the scenes look at what it’s like to work at an observatory at night, along with something of a scary story, check out my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

The Backbeat of the Universe

This past week, I’ve been helping to re-commission the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory and commission the first components of the new DESI spectrograph that we’ve been installing. In nautical terms, you can think of this as being like a shakedown cruise. We’re making sure the telescope is primed for taking scientific data and we want to assure we’ve worked out all the kinks from the telescope sitting idle for a year while it was rebuilt. We’re also making sure the components of the new instrument work as expected.

I have mentioned in previous posts that DESI is a spectrograph fed by 5000 optical fibers, each of which can be positioned to sit on a specific target in the sky. Those 5000 fibers have not yet been installed. What we have now is more of an optical camera installed at the top of the telescope in the black “can” at the top of the picture in this post. That allows us to evaluate the image quality through the telescope and make sure the light from objects on the sky will actually fall on those 5000 fibers when they’re installed.

We also have the guider that will be used with DESI. A telescope like the 4-meter is designed to track the sky with great precision, but because it’s such a large real-world machine, imperfections always creep in, so we have a camera that watches the sky and makes fine corrections to the telescope’s pointing as it tracks the sky. The commissioning instrument we have on now, will let us put the guider through its paces.

The goal of the DESI’s five-year mission is to make a three-dimensional map of about one-third of the entire sky, by giving us not only precise positions of every object we can see in that area, but by giving us distance as well. So, how can DESI do this? It takes advantage of something cool that happened in the early universe.

Everywhere you look in the sky, as far away as we can see, which also means as far back in time as we can look, is something called the cosmic microwave background. This is the universe as it looked about 400,000 years after the Big Bang. Given that the universe is 14 billion years old, that’s a long time ago! Before the epoch of the cosmic microwave background, light was bound up and couldn’t escape. At 400,000 years, the universe had expanded enough that that light and heat could escape, but there was enough gravity to try to keep that from happening. These competing forces set up acoustic waves throughout the universe. These acoustic waves were everywhere and they collided, setting up beat frequencies. These beat frequencies helped to set up localized points of gravity which drew material inwards. In the fullness of times, those localized points would become galaxies. Here’s what the universe looked like at that time.

Image courtesy WMAP Science Team

Now here’s the cool part, because we understand acoustic theory, we can predict how far apart these localized points will be and we can look to see if galaxies tend to be distributed as you would predict from looking at these acoustic waves. In fact, they are. Galaxies today tend to be separated by factors of about 500 million light years. Statistically, they’re much more likely to be at some factor of that than say, 400 or 600 million light years.

If you know how far apart galaxies are today and you know how far apart the acoustic beats were in the primordial universe, you can use geometry to look at more distant galaxies. We used to use how far a galaxy’s chemical fingerprint was shifted toward the red end of the spectrum as a way to measure distance to those galaxies. However, that assumes you understand the rate the universe is expanding. The separation between galaxies at the same redshift, will tell you how far away they actually are without making assumptions about the way the universe expands.

I will be speaking more about this and the DESI project at two astronomy club meetings in the next month. The first presentation will be for the Astronomical Society of Las Cruces on Friday, April 26 at 7pm. The meetings are held at the Good Samaritan Village in Las Cruces, New Mexico. More information about the location is available at: https://aslc-nm.org/MonthlyMeeting.html.

My other presentation will be given to the Phoenix Astronomical Society in Phoenix, Arizona on May 9 at 7:30pm. You can find more details about the location at: http://www.pasaz.org/index.php?pageid=meetings.

Podcasting about Astronomy, Steampunk and More

This weekend finds me at Wild Wild West Con, which is being held at Old Tucson Studios just outside Tucson, Arizona. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll make time to join us. We’re having an amazing time. You can get more information about the convention at https://www.wildwestcon.com/

In the run-up to the convention, I was interviewed on the podcast, Madame Perry’s Salon. Madame Perry is a little like Barbara Eden’s character in I Dream of Jeannie. After a lead in from Captain Kirk and Mr. Sulu, she invited me to sit on the cushions in her genie’s bottle. We discussed how reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love and John Nichols’ The Magic Journey while thinking about the story of my mom’s family set me on the path to writing my first novel The Pirates of Sufiro. We also talked about how working at an observatory and making discoveries in the late twentieth century using nineteenth century instrumentation was an important inspiration for my steampunk writing. Madame Perry asked some great questions. We also had a listener question and a visit from Wild Wild West Con’s programming director James Breen. You can listen to the entire show at: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/madameperryssalon/2019/02/28/author-and-astronomer-david-lee-summers-visits-madame-perrys-salon

While you’re at the site, be sure to navigate up to Madame Perry’s main page. In other episodes, she interviews several other Wild Wild West Con featured artists as well, including cosplayer Tayliss Forge, maker Tobias McCurry, and musical guest Professor Elemental among others. If you can’t make it to the convention, the podcast is a great way to get to know some of the people attending. If you were able to make it Wild Wild West Con, you can listen and learn even more about those of us in attendance!

As it turns out, Madame Perry’s Salon wasn’t the only podcast I visited recently to speak about Victorian astronomy. A while back Jeff Davis invited me to speak on his show about something called the Carrington Event. In effect this was a massive solar storm in 1859 that resulted in a coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth head on sparking electrical disruption through telegraph lines, triggering auroras and making compasses go crazy. I had to admit that I didn’t know much about the Carrington Event, but Jeff recommended I read a great book called The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark.

The Sun Kings told the story of the Carrington Event and how solar observations in the nineteenth century contributed to the rise of modern astrophysics. Among other things, it discussed the advent of astrophotography and spectroscopy and how astronomers began to notice commonalities between the sun and other stars. This really gets to the root of work I’ve done studying RS CVn stars, which are sun-type binary systems where one or both of the stars have massive spots. It also ties into my work at Kitt Peak where I routinely support spectrographic observations.

Jeff’s show is on the Paranormal UK Radio Network. Despite the network title, we didn’t really get into the paranormal, even though the subject does fascinate me. You can listen to my discussion with Jeff at: http://paranormalukradio.podbean.com/

Explore New Worlds During Read an Ebook Week

I am pleased to announce that several of my books are on sale as part of Smashwords’ Read an Ebook Week promotion. I’ve written books and edited anthologies that imagine travels to distant worlds and this is a great time to join me for the adventure, especially in this week that’s the run-up to Wild Wild West Con with the theme of Galactic Steampunk Federation. The Kepler anthologies I edited with NASA astronomer Steve B. Howell and the novels in my Space Pirates’ Legacy world are all on sale this week.


Kepler Anthologies – 50% Off

Steve Howell and I created the Kepler anthologies as a way to imagine what worlds discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope might actually be like. In the way that Mars became a focal point for science fiction writers in the early twentieth century, we see exoplanets as the new frontier in the twenty-first. You can pick up the Kepler Anthologies for 50% off this week.

A Kepler’s Dozen presents thirteen stories about distant worlds that really exist. This anthology of action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, thirteen exoplanet stories written by authors such as Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets. Each individual story in this book is prefaced by actual scientific data for the particular planet and its host star, based on Kepler discoveries and follow-up. This gives the reader a feel for the type of sun and planets that exist in these alien solar systems. Get the ebook at Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/325583


  • NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered thousands of new planets.
  • Visiting, much less settling, those worlds will provide innumerable challenges.
  • The men and women who make the journey will be those who don’t fear the odds.
  • They’ll be Kepler’s Cowboys.

Saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. Meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. Fight for justice in a lawless frontier. Go on a quest for a few dollars more. This exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology of fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, L.J. Bonham, and many more! The book is available at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/698694


Space Pirates’ Legacy – 75% Off

To celebrate the recent release of the first book of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, I’m offering the books set in that universe at a deep discount of 75% off as a way to encourage you to discover this universe for yourself.

The Solar Sea sets the stage for the Space Pirates’ Legacy books by telling the story of how humans became citizens of the galaxy. Whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination. The Solar Sea is available at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/805692


The Space Pirates’ Legacy itself begins with Firebrandt’s Legacy. In the book, Ellison Firebrandt fights the good fight for Earth. Under a letter of marque, he raids the ships of Earth’s opponents, slowing down their progress and ability to compete with the home system. On the planet Epsilon Indi 2, he rescues a woman named Suki Mori from a drug lord, only to find she isn’t so happy about living a pirate’s life. However, when the captain finds a new engine that will make him the most successful pirate of all, Suki is the only one who can make it work. Now Firebrandt must find a way to keep his crew fed and his ship supplied while relying on a woman who barely trusts him and while every government in the galaxy hunts him to get the engine back! Get Firebrandt’s Legacy at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/916916

Stamp Collecting

One thing astronomers do is attempt to classify the objects they see by common properties. For example, stars that display similar chemical fingerprints in their spectra will be assigned a certain spectral type. Galaxies can be grouped by shape such as spiral, barred spiral, elliptical, and my favorite, irregular. Here’s a chart from NASA showing the numbers of exoplanets discovered as grouped by size of planet.

Back in my college days, we called this “stamp collecting.” It’s a somewhat derogatory term because it’s not necessarily the most exciting work in astronomy and its significance can be somewhat misleading. A great example is the whole “is Pluto a planet” debate which was sparked by classifying Pluto a dwarf planet. To my mind a “dwarf planet” is just a type of planet. After all, we orbit a dwarf star! (A G2V yellow dwarf main sequence star if you want more of the taxonomy.)

That said, this process of stamp collecting does serve an important purpose. By seeing how many of what types of objects are out in the universe, it helps us understand how the universe evolved. It helps us see patterns that show us how particular objects might have changed. For example, when I mentioned that the sun is a G2V main sequence star, that not only tells me what it is, but gives me some idea where the star is in its life cycle.

We do stamp collecting in the writing world as well. We classify books broadly by subject: science fiction, horror, romance, adventure, etc. We often take these individual classifications down even finer. A science fiction book can be described as hard science fiction, space opera, military science fiction and more. Like stamp collecting in astronomy, this can be an important process. It helps readers find what they want to read. However, it can also get overblown.

It’s become a reality in the publishing industry that an author’s name is a sort of brand, and authors often get classified right along with their books. Mary Smith writes military science fiction while John Jones writes space opera. Some writers even go so far as to pick different pseudonyms each time they explore not just a new genre, but a new subgenre.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of my own writing career. For most of the last decade, I’ve been very focused on my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels. Now, I’m turning my focus more to my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. To my mind, the two series actually have a lot in common. There’s a real space cowboy vibe in the Space Pirates series that echoes the retrofuturism of the steampunk. Of course, this does cause some people to ask if I’ve finished the Clockwork Legion series or won’t do more steampunk. The answer to both is absolutely not. I think I have many more steampunk stories to tell and many of those will feature Ramon, Fatemeh, Larissa, and the rest of the gang. However, I also like telling stories about Captain Firebrandt, Roberts, and Manuel Raton.

For what it’s worth, I classify myself as a writer of fantastic tales with a retrofuturistic vibe. That captures my steampunk, my space cowboys, and even my vampires, especially when I write stories set in a historical context.

If you’re in Tucson, I hope you’ll join me tomorrow, Sunday, February 10 at 3:30pm at Antigone Books for the Tucson Steampunk Society’s book club meeting where I’ve been invited to discuss my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders, which recently was a top-ten finisher in the Predators and Editors Reader’s Poll for best steampunk novel of 2018. Copies of the novel are available at Antigone and if you let us know you haven’t read it yet, we’ll try not to give away too many spoilers. Antigone Books is located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. If you can’t make it, the book club posts videos of the meeting that will be shared on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/