Exploring Galaxies

This past week, I’ve been working at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s WIYN telescope using one of the workhorse instruments called HexPak to help astronomers better understand how galaxies work. At left is a photo I took of the galaxy M51 with the New Mexico State University 1-meter telescope. While we can learn a lot studying photos like this, wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn more, and understand what chemical elements make up the different parts of a galaxy? The instrument HexPak is designed to do just that.

One of the best tools we have for understanding the chemistry of objects in space is spectroscopy. Back in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that if you looked at heated elements through a spectroscope, you would see a characteristic set of lines in the rainbow-like spectrum. These lines are like a fingerprint for each element. It turns out that stars are really good at heating up elements! Below is a photo of the WIYN telescope with HexPak mounted.

HexPak is the white hose-like thing on the right plugged into side of the telescope. Inside that hose-like unit is a bundle of optical fibers arrayed in a hexagonal pattern. They look like this:

We can then align those fibers with a galaxy like M51 above, so different parts of the galaxy line up with different fibers. When that’s done, it looks something like this:

Now, I should note, this image was created just for illustration purposes. I haven’t tried to match the scale or alignment of my NMSU 1-meter image of M51 with the HexPak fiber array. However, you will see that different parts of the galaxy now line up with different fibers. That light is now sent downstairs to a bench spectrograph where it’s broken into its component parts. Here’s WIYN’s bench spectrograph. You can even see the rainbow like spectra on the grating at left we use to analyze the light from galaxies.

Light from each of the fibers in the array becomes a single spectrum and the image of that spectrum is recorded on a camera, shown at the right of the image above. Each one of those spectra will tell us about the elements present in each of the parts of the galaxy as lined up above. So, for example, you can figure out if the spiral arms have different amounts of a certain element than the bulge in the center. You can see what’s going on in the space between the galactic arms. If you look closely at my photo of M51, you’ll see it has bright regions that line up with parts of the spiral arm. An instrument like HexPak can help an astronomer learn if those parts of the spiral arm are different from other parts of the spiral arm, and maybe see what those regions are made of.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, this work does inspire my writing. Sometimes I look at a galaxy like one we study with HexPak and think what it would be like travel between the different parts of a galaxy. M51 has a lot in common with our own galaxy. What’s it like in the arms? What’s it like between the arms? What’s it like the galaxy’s center? What’s more, working with astronomers in the control room sometimes does feel like being a crewmember on a spaceship exploring uncharted reaches. All of these elements have influenced science fiction stories like Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to release the former and I’m rewriting the latter with help from supporters at my Patreon site.

You can get involved in the fun by becoming a patron. My patrons are the first people who get to read new stories in my science fiction universe and they get to download complete books when they’re available. What’s more, one of my goals at my Patreon site is to make this blog ad free. If you like behind-the-scenes looks into astronomy like this one, but don’t like the ads at the blog, please consider supporting my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers


Reassembling the Mayall

Back in July, I discussed some of the different components that had come in for the DESI instrument being installed at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s Mayall 4-meter telescope. You can read about them in the post, Assembling the Puzzle. The corrector optics and hexapod alignment system have been installed into the telescope’s top end. Here I am, hard at work torquing the bolts that hold it all together.

If all goes according to schedule, the new top end will be lifted to the top of the telescope next week. At that point, the telescope will look more like itself again. Control cables and network boxes for the top end assembly will then be assembled so astronomers working in the control room can talk to the instrument. At that point, the work platforms that are visible in the older post will be disassembled. Here’s a look at the top end, almost ready to lift up to the top of the top of the telescope.

Once the top end is back on the telescope, the primary mirror, which is currently out of the telescope, will need to be re-aluminized. Telescope mirrors are finely polished, curved glass. Over the top surface is a very thin layer of aluminum which is applied in a vacuum chamber. The vacuum chamber for this process is the biggest one in the southwestern United States. I describe a scary scene involving such a chamber in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Fortunately, care is taken to operate the chamber very safely in real life.

One thing to note about the top end in the photos above is that there is no actual instrument mounted yet. Astronomers rarely sit at an eyepiece actually looking through a telescope anymore. Most of the time, there’s a high precision digital camera looking through the telescope. Sometimes that high precision camera is designed to look at a specific wavelength region, such as optical light or infrared light. Sometimes that camera doesn’t look at the sky directly, but at light that’s been reflected off a grating. A grating is just a reflecting surface that breaks up light like a prism. The advantage to a grating is that you lose less light than you do when you shoot it through a chunk of glass. Breaking up light then allows you to see lines in spectra that tell you about the chemistry of the object you’re looking at.

In a nutshell, that’s the kind of instrument DESI is. Astronomers are interested in the chemistry of the objects they’re looking at. However, there’s one other feature you get by studying these spectral lines. When an object moves, the lines shift toward the blue end of the spectrum if the object is moving toward the observer or toward the red end of the spectrum if the object is moving away. That’s what we mean when we talk about blue shift and red shift. What’s more, how far the chemical lines have shifted is a measure of the object’s velocity through space. The goal of DESI is to measure the velocity of some 5000 objects every time the telescope points to a new target. That said, this data will be available to everyone and it contains all the fundamental chemical information about the objects the telescope is pointing at.

Before the final DESI instrument goes on, there will be a commissioning instrument. That will be more like a regular camera—more like looking through an eyepiece. The goal of the commissioning instrument will be to align the telescope on the sky after all this work has been done and assure that the telescope has good pointing so that we can get the best data when we’re using the spectrographs later.

Once the commissioning instrument goes on the telescope, I’ll return to my regular nighttime duties at the Mayall, shaking down the rebuilt telescope and getting it ready for its next five year mission. My novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, which I mentioned in passing, is not just a horror novel, but it provides a look behind the scenes at an observatory. If you’re interested in seeing what goes on at night at a facility like Kitt Peak, or one of the other observatories where I’ve worked over the years, it’s a great place to start. Just be warned, not only will you encounter astronomers, engineers and technicians, but some ghosts, a monster from Apache lore, and a few other surprises as well. You can get more information about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Short Sleeps

When I tell people I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona, one of the first questions I’m asked is some variation of how that works, especially once they realize the two points are approximately 325 miles apart. The answer is that I have a dorm room at the observatory. Here’s what it looks like.

The room is assigned to me permanently, so as you can see, I’ve added some personal touches. This time of year, I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time in the comfort of my room. I often think of the period from November through February as the time of the short sleeps. It’s sort of a counterpoint to Clement Moore’s “long winter’s nap” from his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Of course, the reason this is the time of the short sleeps is because of the long winter night. At optical observatories, we try to maximize the time we’re on the sky and that means data taking starts soon after sunset and finishes just a little before sunrise. To get the telescope ready for observations, I actually have to be at work before sunset. How close to sunrise we work in the morning depends on the scientific requirements of the program, but it’s not uncommon for me to work right up until sunrise. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for me to get six hours of sleep through the day before starting another day of work. Even if I wanted to commute 325 miles each day, it would be impossible.  For that matter, living closer wouldn’t necessarily help. It’s still 50 miles to Tucson.

I’m often asked whether I can write during my long nights at the observatory. The reality is that work takes enough of my attention that I really can’t compose new material while I’m at work. However, sometimes we do get into situations where I’m monitoring a long exposure and just need to look up from time to time to make sure the instrumentation is behaving as expected. During those times, I find I can edit stories. I also sometimes bring a good book to keep me company on a long winter’s night.

A casual observer will likely notice from the photo of my room that I’m a fan of Cowboy Bebop. Of course, followers of this blog will know that I’m generally a fan of space cowboys and space pirates. A closer look at the photo will reveal some badges from past conventions tacked to the bulletin board in the background. My schedule is such that it’s not uncommon for me to go from an event directly to work at the observatory.

My favorite things in this photo, though, are two things made for me by my family. My wife made the crochet jackalope next to my bed, which helped to inspire the jackalope harvesters in my Clockwork Legion novels. My daughter drew the lightning wolf picture which hangs to the right of my bed. The lightning wolf is, of course, the mechanized bicycle designed by bounty hunter Larissa Crimson in the same series. I’ve shown off both of these in more detail in other posts.

Of course, the Clockwork Legion books make good companions through the long, dark nights of winter. You can learn more about the books by visiting the links at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Ten (plus) Years at Kitt Peak

David Lee Summers, Christian Soto, and Dick Joyce at the annual AURA service awards ceremony.

This month, I received my ten-year service award from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy for my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The awards were presented following an annual presentation on the state of the observatory. Other award recipients included my boss, Dick Joyce, whose been with Kitt Peak for 45 years and one of my fellow Observing Associates, Christian Soto, who is celebrating his five-year anniversary. The photo shows the three of us at the University of Arizona ballroom where the presentation was given.

As it turns out, I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for more than a decade. I was tempted away from graduate school in 1992 and worked at the observatory until 1995. During that time, I watched the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope’s construction and served as one of its first four operators. I left because my wife and I were expecting our first child and I wanted a job that allowed me to be home more of the time. So, I went to work helping to finish commissioning a 1-meter telescope run by New Mexico State University. In late 2007, a former co-worker from Kitt Peak called me up and said they needed experienced telescope operators and asked if I wanted to return. At that time, I was a full-time writer and editor and wasn’t sure I did want to, but I agreed to an interview. They offered me a job and after much soul-searching I decided to return. I started in February 2008. So, now that it’s October, that means I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for about fourteen years. Unfortunately, human resources said I was away too long for my previous seniority to count, but my boss has expressed an interest in rectifying that if possible. We’ll see if that happens.

I feel like I made a good decision in returning. One surprising fringe benefit was that I became a more productive writer even though I was working full time. I suspect there are a few reasons for that. First of all, it forced me to better organize my time. Also, it put me into a position where I was interacting with people face-to-face more regularly, which I think helped me to bring more depth and emotional realism to my writing. Of course, the story of my departure and my return directly inspired elements of my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt.

In the book, Mike Teter leaves the observatory because of a frightening experience. As it turns out, his experience was based on something that happened to me in my first tenure at Kitt Peak. It was a windy, stormy morning and I had gone up to make sure I’d serviced the instrumentation for the morning. The wind rattled the dome and there was an energy in the air. I had an unshakable feeling that something didn’t want me there and some kind of force was coming to remove me from the mountain. That frightening feeling went away after I’d had some sleep and I didn’t leave because of that incident, but I asked myself what if there really had been an evil force? What if it had manifested? Would I have been able to stay if my fears had actually materialized? I channeled that experience into the novel’s prologue. I know prologues often get a bad rap, but I made it a prologue not because it was “optional” but because it was an inciting incident that happened a few years before the main action of the novel.

If you’re in the mood for a scary read this Halloween week, you can read the entire prologue for free at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt-Preview.html. If you get to the end and find you’re hooked, I have information about how you can order a copy of the novel. Hope you have a spooktacular week!


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

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.