CoKoCon 2022

I’ll be celebrating Labor Day Weekend at CoKoCon 2022 in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area. The convention is being held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Phoenix Tempe in Tempe, Arizona. CoKoCon is a traditional science fiction convention with panels, an art show, a dealer’s room, gaming and room parties. The author guest of honor is Joseph Nassise, who I have been proud to share a dealer’s table with at Phoenix Comic Con a couple of times. We also shared a table of contents in an issue of Cemetery Dance Magazine. The local guest of honor is the multi-talented Linda Addison. She’s a poet, storyteller and winner of the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers of America. The artist guest of honor is Ave Rose, who is an automation maker and a jewelry designer. You can get all the details about CoKoCon on their website at: https://www.cokocon.org.

Hadrosaur Productions will have a table in the dealer’s room and I will be on several panels through the weekend. My schedule is as follows:

Friday, September 2

7:30pm – Fiesta Ballroom – Cryptids During the Pandemic. While humans were staying home during lockdown, did Bigfoot come out to play? Panelists discuss these mysterious beasts and how they differ from other mythical monsters. On the panel with me are Joseph Nassise and Avily Jerome.

Saturday, September 3

1:00pm – Coronado Room – To See New Earths. I’ll introduce Kitt Peak’s planet-hunting detector, NEID, and discuss its role supporting NASA’s TESS mission, hunting for Earth-like planets outside the solar system.

6:00pm – Coronado Room – Writing Speculative Poetry. I’ll join Linda Addison and Beth Cato to discuss the craft and market for speculative poetry, and maybe we’ll even share some of our work.

Sunday, September 4

2:30pm – Fiesta Ballroom – Mapping the Universe. Kitt Peak’s DESI instrument is engaged in a five-year mission to make the largest 3D map in the universe. How does it work? What are some things we’ve learned along the way? And what do we ultimately hope to learn?

7:30pm – Fiesta Ballroom – Historical Fiction Meets Fantasy. What is the proper proportion of facts with fiction when writing historical fantasy? What resources can authors turn to. What are the perils and joys of research? On the panel with me are Beth Cato, Bruce Davis, and Dani Hoots.


If you’re in the Phoenix metro area this coming weekend, I hope you’ll drop into CoKoCon and say “hello.”

Last Call for the 2022 Summer/Winter Sale

The annual Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale is underway. It gets its name because where I live in the northern hemisphere, readers are loading up their e-readers for great beach reading and vacations. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the middle of winter and people are spending time in a warm and cozy place reading. All of Hadrosaur’s titles are available at deep discounts this month and I’ll be highlighting them all month long here at the Web Journal. If you’re looking for a specific title, you don’t have to wait for me to highlight it, just visit http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.php and click on the book you’re interested in. On its page is a link to Smashwords if its available there. The coupon codes for these discounts are automatically applied at checkout. One of the things I love about Smashwords is that they provide ebooks in all popular formats and they’re DRM free, so you can download them to your favorite device.

Today is last call before the sale wraps up at the end of the week. I’m featuring two of my books today. The first is The Astronomer’s Crypt, a contemporary novel about astronomers, drug dealers, Apache spirits, and ghosts colliding on a mountaintop observatory on a terrible night and you can grab a copy absolutely free of charge. Consider this my gift for all these promotional posts in July! The second is my novella, Revolution of Air and Rust, set in an alternate 1915 where Pancho Villa is being pursued by American airships. Their lightning guns open a rift to an alternate Earth where Villa finds a weapon that might even the score! This novella is half off the cover price.


Two years ago 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. We 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 we 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…

Chris Wozney of The Nameless Zine says, “In the best tradition of horror fiction, we have courageous protagonists, characters who cross the line of good and evil in both directions, unspeakable evil from a forgotten age, and a villain behind the scenes who is attempting to bring back dark powers in the (no doubt mistaken) belief that he can control them … Strongly recommended to all who enjoy Stephen King’s novels.”

My novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, is pulled from over twenty years experience operating telescopes at observatories around the Southwest. You can make this journey into the dark side of astronomy for free this month at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1025608


Revolution of Air and Rust is a stand-alone novella set in the Empires of Steam and Rust world created by Robert E. Vardeman and Stephen D. Sullivan. A story filled with military action, espionage and gadgetry that’s sure to satisfy fans of steampunk and alternate history.

1915. Teddy Roosevelt is building an empire. Only Pancho Villa stands in his way.

The American Expeditionary Force under the command of General “Black Jack” Pershing has invaded Northern Mexico. Pancho Villa leads his revolutionary army in a desperate raid against the American force only to be outflanked. Just as Pershing’s airships prepare to deliver the death blow, Pancho Villa is transported to a parallel Earth where he finds an unexpected ally and the technology that might just turn defeat into victory.

“This novella takes place in 1915 in a steampunk world where the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa is the good guy and his arch-enemy Black Jack Pershing is about to crush the Villa revolution. Pershing has a fleet of airships and an invading army and seems certain to win … That’s the basic situation in this fast moving and gripping story by David Lee Summers.” Neal Wilgus, The Supplement.

Revolution of Air and Rust is available for half off the cover price this month at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/25462

Contreras Wildfire and Kitt Peak

Over the years working at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve seen several fires from the domes at the summit. A few of these fires have even approached close enough to create nail-biting situations where we prepared to evacuate the site. However, a little over a week ago, a fire burned right up to our facility. As an operator on the Mayall 4-meter and WIYN 3.5-meter telescopes, I’m tasked with facility and personnel safety after hours. So, this means I was keeping a close eye on the fire up until the point we had to leave Kitt Peak.

While driving up to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory on Saturday night, June 11, I passed through the small town of Three Points, Arizona and noticed an orange glow on the ridge between Kitt Peak and Baboquivari Peak. I gritted my teeth, afraid I was seeing the beginnings of a fire. I hoped I was wrong. I’d hoped someone had installed a radio tower with an orange light between the town and the mountain, but soon after I started driving up the Kitt Peak road, my hopes were dashed. I soon saw a fire burning off in the distance. At that point, I wasn’t terribly worried, I’d seen fires in that part of the range before and the Tohono O’Odham fire department usually knocked them out within a couple of days. When I reached the summit, I checked in with the duty operators, let them know I’d arrived on site and confirmed they had seen the fire and that officials knew about it. Since it had been visible from a nearby town, I figured they did, but it’s always good to check. By all accounts, the fire started from a lightning strike earlier that evening.

Unfortunately, the southwest has been suffering a drought which has now lasted over 20 years and vegetation was extremely dry. However, the wind was calm and blowing away from the observatory, so when I started my shift on Sunday, June 12, we were able to work with the fire burning off in the distance and smoke blowing away from us. As it turns out, the WIYN telescope, where I was working, had a problem with its optical system. A vacuum system which keeps the heavy mirrors off the hard mounting points had failed, causing minor distortion. We were taking spectra, so this problem didn’t keep us from working, but it needed to be fixed, so on Monday, June 13, our optical engineer began the process of removing the secondary mirror from the telescope to investigate the problem. This is a big job and it couldn’t be completed in one day, so my primary job that night was to monitor the fire’s progress and make sure the wind didn’t shift to blow over the observatory. Here’s a look at the fire shortly after sunset.

View toward Baboquivari Peak on June 13, 2022

On Tuesday, while I slept, it became apparent that the fire was a big enough danger that steps should be taken to make the site as safe as possible. Engineers began shutting down less critical systems and making things as safe as possible. The wind shifted that afternoon and more smoke began coming toward the site. When many people imagine an observatory, they might imagine anywhere from one to six telescopes on a remote mountain summit. It may help to understand that Kitt Peak National Observatory is the world’s largest observatory campus with over twenty telescopes. There are, in fact at least six dormitory buildings along with several houses, kitchen facilities, a full maintenance yard including automotive shop, water treatment facility, backup generators and so forth. Like many college campuses, Kitt Peak is almost like a small town in its own right. So lots of people were at work all across the site through the day. That evening, I had a briefing from the Kitt Peak director. Because of the smoke, telescopes would be closed that night. Smoke can damage optics. As the night started, I went up to the Mayall telescope and took a photo from the visitor gallery. Only a little of the fire was visible from that vantage, looking like a string of lights on the mountain in the background, just to the right of the left-most dome. Still, this gives you an idea of how close the fire was getting.

Contreras Fire on the night of Tuesday, June 14

The wind picked up the night of June 14 and the fire seemed to pick up strength. As you can see in the first photo, there was a small ridge line between us and the fire. By the morning of June 15, the fire crested that ridge and I wondered how much longer we would remain on site. Here’s what it looked like on Wednesday morning.

Contreras Fire on the Morning of June 15.

I went to bed, knowing someone would wake me if we needed to evacuate. I woke up and attended two administrative meetings. From my room, I could already tell there was much more smoke in the air by Wednesday afternoon. As soon as the meetings were finished, I went to the WIYN telescope. From that vantage, I saw that the fire had progressed dramatically. A wall of smoke rose from just below the mountain summit and I could see flames just over a mile away. I went into the observatory and learned that a controlled shutdown of as many systems as possible was underway. I helped where I could. Among other things, I helped to carry one piece of instrumentation down to an engineer’s car so it could be transported off the mountain safely. Firefighters began arriving on the mountain. One of them warned us a plane was about to drop a load of fire retardant and we should move our vehicles so they would be damaged when that much water and retardant came down onto the mountain. We did as directed and soon afterward I was called into a meeting in the director’s office. While in that meeting, the incident commander gave us the order to evacuate. I went to my dorm room, packed up as much as I could and went to my car. I was off the mountain within about half an hour.

Because my home is in New Mexico, the observatory management put me up in a hotel room in Tucson that night. I hoped we would be evacuated, the firefighters would hold the line on the fire and I would return in a night or two. Still I had an uneasy feeling as I walked back to my hotel room after dinner that night. Here’s the view of the hotel. What looks like clouds low in the sky is smoke from the Contreras wildfire.

Smoke from the Contreras Wildfire, visible from Speedway Blvd in Tucson, Arizona

On Wednesday night, I watched the fire on the mountain webcams from my hotel room. Part of my job is accounting for the night’s use so it can be reported to the National Science Foundation. I filled out my reports. Thursday night was more of the same. On Friday morning, I filled out my report, but soon after, computers at the observatory went dark. A little while later, I learned that utility power had gone out on the mountain and we’d lost the internet connection. The fire had reached the summit.

I went home on Friday, but have continued to follow the news. The firefighters did a tremendous job. No scientific buildings were lost. As far as I’ve heard, only four support structures were consumed by the fire. It helped that almost all the buildings at Kitt Peak are constructed of concrete, steel, and brick. Since Saturday, the fire has been contained, but access to the Kitt Peak summit is still strictly regulated for safety. As soon as its safe, engineers and facility teams will begin the process of inspecting the site. They’ll see how much smoke and ash infiltrated the domes. They’ll see if there’s been heat damage. They’ll make sure we have reliable power and internet. Once that’s done, it’ll be time to see if the telescopes and instrumentation can be brought back on line and repair things as needed. It’ll be a process and it’ll take time. Still, I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to the firefighters who jumped in and kept the facility as safe as possible so that we actually can look forward to resuming operations. They did tremendous work and I look forward to resuming science at Kitt Peak in the not-too-distant future.

Space Pirates’ Legacy Complete

In May 2017, the rights to my “Old Star Saga” novels reverted to me. Upon getting the rights back, I decided to add a new first novel, revise and update the existing novels, and rebrand the series as “The Space Pirates’ Legacy.” After almost five years, this project is finally complete. Today, I’m proud to announce the release of book four, Heirs of the New Earth.

Heirs of the New Earth

The Earth has gone silent. John Mark Ellis and the crew of the Sanson are sent to investigate. When they arrive, they find vast alien machines known as Clusters in orbit. Fearing the worst, they land and discover that the once overcrowded, polluted Earth has become a paradise of sorts. The problem is over half the population is dead or missing and the planet’s leaders don’t seem to care. As Ellis works to unravel the mystery, sudden gravitational shifts from the galaxy’s center indicate something even worse is in the offing. Can Ellis save the galaxy from the heirs of the new Earth?

I wrote The Pirates of Sufiro in 1993 while living in Tucson, Arizona. Once I finished, I knew I wanted to write a sequel, and perhaps turn the series into a trilogy. The novel ends with John Mark Ellis, grandson of space pirate Ellison Firebrandt, wanting to pursue a mystery. An alien intelligence called the Cluster had invaded the galaxy. At the end of The Pirates of Sufiro, Ellis had no idea whether the Cluster was a ship or a life form in its own right. He knew the Cluster was dangerous and it destroyed starships, but he had no idea whether the danger was intentional or accidental. If the Cluster was a life form in its own right, could it understand that human ships were vessels with intelligent beings aboard? I knew Ellis would want to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Around the same time as I started thinking about the sequel, a team of observers were at the Mayall telescope using the Infrared Imager we had at the time to take images of the center of the galaxy. During that run, I watched as they captured the deepest image of the galactic core taken to that point. Since then, we’ve taken even deeper and more stunning images, but I was still mind-blown. I remember discussing what one would find at the center of the galaxy with the astronomers in the control room. We talked about the black hole in the center of the galaxy.

As we spoke, an image flashed to my mind. I imaged John Mark Ellis aboard an old-fashioned sailing ship at the center of the galaxy. I knew the rest of the series would tell of the story of how Ellis ended up on that sailing ship in that place. All I knew at the time was that somehow the Cluster was involved. Laura Givens’ cover art for the new edition, captures the image I’d conjured perfectly and I hope it makes you wonder how he got there. And this image isn’t a red herring. Not only does it reflect an image I had way back in 1993, it depicts an important scene from the heart of the novel.

The novel has just gone live in print and ebook formats and will start wending its way through the distribution chain soon. That said, you can pick up the print edition of the novel today at Amazon.com. The ebook is available in Kindle format at Amazon.com. It’s also available in a wide variety of additional formats at Smashwords.com. As always, you can find all the retailers I know who are carrying the book on the book’s page at my site: http://davidleesummers.com/heirs_new_earth.html

Breaking Records

It occurred to me it’s been a while since I’ve shared a behind-the-scenes look at my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Now that the DESI spectrograph is on the Mayall Telescope and the NEID spectrograph is on the WIYN Telescope, we’ve fallen into a fairly regular routine where, most nights, I check in with the observing team at 4pm via video chat, then go to the control room where I’ll eat dinner, open the telescope and start observing through the night. We wrap up as the sun starts lightening the sky in the morning. Targets for the night are predetermined before observing begins for the night. Once observing begins, much of my job is watching that the telescope doesn’t try to move to a position where it physically can’t and I’m the first line of defense in case the telescope or instrument malfunctions. I also watch the weather to make sure rain, wind, or snow don’t damage the telescope.

A slice through the 3D map of galaxies from the first few months of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI). The Earth is at the center, with the furthest galaxies plotted at distances of 10 billion light years. Each point represents one galaxy. This version of the DESI map shows a subset of 400,000 of the 35 million galaxies that will be in the final map. Image courtesy NOIRLab.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we expected that both the telescope operator and lead observer for the night would be working in the same room, possibly with some support scientists. As it turns out, I wrote a post recently describing how these plans had to change so we could operate safely in these times. As things currently stand, I work in a control room alone and coordinate with the rest of the team via video conference. You can read that post here: https://www.desi.lbl.gov/2021/11/17/social-distancing-while-mapping-the-universe/

All this steady plugging away, observing the sky night after night with DESI is paying off. It was just announced that after just seven months of operation, DESI has already surpassed 7.5 million galaxies mapped, which means it has already generated the largest 3D map of the universe to date. And we’ve only completed about 10 percent of the survey. When we’re done, we expect to have mapped over 35 million galaxies. The picture with the post is a slice of the map so far. The map is presented such that Earth is at the center. Each point on the map is a galaxy. I encourage you to take a look at the press release about the DESI results so far. It’s at: https://noirlab.edu/public/news/noirlab2203/

One of my favorite images at the press release is an interactive image where you can look the map above and compare it to all the data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in New Mexico. Sloan has been an on-going, ground-breaking project in its own right. I was fortunate enough to be on hand when that telescope was dedicated and the survey began. At the time, I worked as an engineer for a 1-meter telescope just a few yards away from the Sloan at Apache Point Observatory. I think it’s fair to say that DESI would not have been able to achieve what it has so far if Sloan hadn’t paved the way.

As it turns out, DESI’s value isn’t limited to creating a big map of the universe. Yes, that’s important and hopefully it’ll give astronomers clues about how the universe is expanding and how that may be related to this thing called dark energy. However, DESI is also creating a giant database of all these spectra that researchers will be able to use for years to come to understand more about the different types of galaxies and quasars we’re observing along the way.

On a good night up here, everything seems quiet and routine, which doesn’t give me a lot to share here, but it is producing lots of data and expanding our knowledge of the universe. Of course, routine nights also give me a chance to ponder the universe and continue to inspire me. As always, you can find links to my books and stories at http://www.davidleesummers.com

TusCon 48

This coming weekend, I will be one of the programming participants at TusCon 48, which will be held at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites in Tucson, Arizona from November 12-14, 2021. The author guest of honor will be New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Ashley. The artist guest of honor will be Jill Bauman, who has illustrated hundreds of works including those by writers such as Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Lilian Jackson Braun. The fan guest of honor will be Doreen Webbert. The toastmaster will be Bram Stoker Award-winning author Weston Ochse. you can find more information about the convention at https://tusconscificon.com

Hadrosaur Productions will have a table in the dealer’s room, where we will feature some of my recently updated titles such as The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth. We will also have books by other authors on hand such as Exchange Students edited by Sheila Hartney, Hybrid by Greg Ballan, and Upstart Mystique by Don Braden. I’m excited to note that Don Braden will be on hand for TusCon. If you’re there, be sure to buy a copy of his novel and ask him to sign it for you!

My schedule for TusCon is as follows:

Friday, November 12

6:00pm to 7:00pm in Panel Room 1. Are Canonical Stories Better than Non-Canon. We have many kinds of expanded stories. Some of them are part of canon. Some are not. Which is better? Is there a better? On the panel with me are Linda D Addison, Catherine Wells, and Marty Ketola.

Saturday, November 13

9:00am to 10:00am in the Ballroom. Solving your Heroes Problems Well. Putting heroes in danger is almost the definition of what authors do, but how do you get them out of the danger realistically but not to easily? On the panel with me are Catherine Wells, Bruce Davis, and Cynthia Ward.

12:00pm to 1:00pm in the Autographing Area. Autograph Signing. I will be available to sign autographs throughout the convention whenever I’m at my dealer’s table, but for this hour, I’ll hang out at the autographing table.

1:00pm to 2:00pm in Panel Room 2. Hunting for Planets from Kitt Peak. A look at how we’re hunting for exoplanets at Kitt Peak National Observatory using the NEID spectrograph along with a discussion of some cool exoplanet results.

If you’ll be in Tucson this coming weekend, I hope to see you at TusCon. Please note, the organizers do require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for admission and masks will be required throughout the weekend.

Gaslight Expo and MileHiCon

This coming weekend, Friday, October 1 through Sunday, October 3, I’ll be a live in-person participant at Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California and I’ll be a virtual participant at MileHiCon in Denver, Colorado. Until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t actually certain I would be able to do either event. I was scheduled to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory those nights. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, one member of our telescope operations team left for another job. We only recently hired a new person after finding the safest way to train a new hire. Because our new operator is still training, and thus doubled up with other operators, vacation time is not being readily approved. Still, I was able to make a trade with one of the other telescope operators.

Of the two events, Gaslight Steampunk Expo asked me to be a participant first. I had told them if I was able to get the weekend off, I would be there. At the time, I thought MileHiCon would be held on the same weekend it has been the last few years, which is closer to the end of October, so I hadn’t imagined there would be a schedule conflict. When MileHiCon invited me, I was surprised to find out they had moved to the first weekend of October. Fortunately, they decided to do a virtual programming track in addition to a live programming track. Among other things, they weren’t certain who would be willing and able to travel to Denver with the pandemic. In my case travel would have been a challenge. Even though I was able to get time off, the only way I could travel to Denver from Tucson in the time allotted would be to fly and even that would assume flights at times I could make.


Gaslight Steampunk Expo will be held from September 30 through October 3 at the San Diego Mission Valley Marriott. The theme for the 2021 event will be the 1889 Universelle Exposition du Paris (World Fair) where Gustave Eiffel built the largest structure on the planet as the gateway to the Champ du Mars and dedicated it to science and the 199 workers who helped him construct this modern marvel. You can get more information about the event at https://www.gaslightexpo.org/

My schedule for the event is as follows:

Saturday, October 2, 2021

  • 4pm – 5pm – Autographing – Vendor Hall. I’ll have a selection of my novels and other writings to sign at the Vendor Hall.
  • 6:30pm – 7:30pm – From Jules Verne to Jacques Tardi: French Literature and Comics – Salon B. I will join James and Kim Keeline who collect antiquarian books to discuss how to find the best Jules Verne translations, other cool French steampunk including the comics of Jacques Tardi and some French films that may have escaped notice in the United States.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

  • 11am – noon – Victorian Astronomy – Salon C. I’ll give an overview of Victorian-era astronomy and how it changed the world.
  • 2pm -3pm – Steampunk Literature: Past, Present, and Future – Salon C. A brief look at the history of steampunk literature and where the future might lead. Madeleine Holly-Rosing and I will be presenting this panel.

For SF/F and speculative fiction lovers, MileHiCon is a weekend not to be missed. The convention will feature authors, artists, speakers and programming on every aspect of the science fiction and fantasy genres. The author guests of honor are G. Willow Wilson and Rachael Swirsky. The artist guest of honor is Rebecca Hicks and the toastmaster is Aaron Michael Ritchey. You can get more information and programming details at https://milehicon.org

I have recorded a reading of the first chapter of my novella Breaking the Code and I have also recorded the science presentation “Surveying the Universe” about Kitt Peak’s DESI project. Those should both appear on the MileHiCon YouTube channel. If you go to YouTube and search for MileHiCon during the weekend of the convention, you should be able to find the presentations. I’ll plan to share them here at the Web Journal after the convention. I’m disappointed that my schedule doesn’t allow me to attend the convention in person, but I am grateful that the organizers did create a virtual track that allows me to participate in some capacity.

Summer Shutdown 2021

I returned to work on site at Kitt Peak National Observatory in November 2020. Social distancing regulations were put in place along with several other protocols to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection. In that time, we’ve been making great strides commissioning the DESI spectrograph and starting it’s five-year survey, which is intended to result in the most comprehensive 3D map of the universe yet made. The instrument is already getting results. For those who don’t recall earlier posts about DESI, it has 5000 optical fibers mounted at the prime focus of the Mayall 4-meter telescope. Each fiber can be positioned to align precisely with an object on the sky. The fibers run to a spectrograph where the light is analyzed and redshifts of distant objects such as galaxies and quasars can be measured. The following image shows how much sky DESI gets in one pointing. It shows the nearby Andromeda Galaxy taking up much of the field, but as an example, you see that one fiber has landed on a distant quasar. It’s spectrum is displayed in the inset box. Each of the pizza-slice segments represents the 500 fibers in one petal of the DESI instrument.

The disk of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), which spans more than 3 degrees across the sky, is targeted by a single DESI pointing, represented by the large circular overlay. The smaller circles within this overlay represent the regions accessible to each of the 5000 DESI robotic fiber positioners. In this sample, the 5000 spectra that were simultaneously collected by DESI include not only stars within the Andromeda Galaxy, but also distant galaxies and quasars. The example DESI spectrum that overlays this image is of a distant quasar that is 11 billion years old. Credit: DESI collaboration/DESI Legacy Imaging Surveys/LBNL/DOE & KPNO/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/unWISE

Summer in Arizona is monsoon season. In short, we get a lot of rain. Clear skies can be few and far between. As a result, this is the time of year engineers often choose to shut down the telescopes to do maintenance and make modifications. The DESI instrument has been performing well, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. The fibers in each of those pizza-slice shapes are aligned by a system called the “Command Action Network” or CAN-Bus for short. It was determined that the CAN-Bus system in DESI could be improved. To do this, each petal has to be removed from the Mayall’s prime focus and placed in an area where it can be worked on. We’re able to do this work this summer because of the availability of COVID vaccines. We do take care to practice social distancing where possible and, especially in the wake of the Delta variant’s rise, we’re staying masked throughout the day. This next photo shows DESI with four of the petals removed.

DESI opened up. The red device in the foreground is used to carefully extract the petals.

The trickiest part of this operation is that the DESI petals are all attached by several yards of fiber optic cable to the spectrographs two stories below. When we remove the petals, we don’t want to torque or strain those cables too much. The petals are lifted down and placed on the floor beside the telescope. Once there, they’re placed into clean tents where they’re worked on. Here we see two members of the DESI team diligently working on the CAN-Bus electronics behind the fiber positioners.

Working on the petals. The fiber optic cables come out of the tent, run along the top and then over the rail to the spectrographs below.

Finally when all the new electronics are installed, the petals have to be tested. Among other things, we need to make sure we didn’t break any of the fibers as we handled the petals. DESI is designed to be able to shine light from the spectrograph up through the fibers. We call these “back illuminators” and a camera mounted just below the telescope’s primary mirror can take an image of the back illuminated fibers to see what position they’re in. Here we see the petal out of the telescope with the back illuminators turned on.

DESI’S fibers glowing a friendly blue, telling us all is well after the work has been completed.

Once the upgrades are completed, the petals are reattached to the telescope. This is a big collaborative effort involving many people from around the country and around the world. Once it’s done, we should have made what was already a powerful machine designed to answer questions about dark energy into an even more powerful machine.

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Given my love of both Star Trek and animation, I knew I would get around to watching the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks eventually. I admit, I didn’t quite rush to the show for two reasons. First off, back when Star Trek: The Next Generation did a couple of episodes from the point of view of junior officers, I felt they’d botched certain elements of it. Also, the animation style put me off. Still, I’m glad I took a chance and saw what the series had to offer. I was pleased to find yet another incarnation of the Star Trek universe to enjoy.

Set aboard the U.S.S. Cerritos, Lower Decks focuses on four ensigns: Becket Mariner, an irreverent character who has climbed up to higher rank, only to be demoted again; Brad Boimler, a by-the-book character who sees himself as a future captain; Davana T’endi, an Orion medical technician; and Eugene Cordero, an engineer adjusting to a cybernetic implant. The ship itself is on a mission of providing engineering support to worlds just entering the Federation. The series features many references to classic Star Trek episodes and, perhaps not surprisingly, has many wonderful tributes to the original animated series. On the whole, the source of the humor comes from poking fun at places fans themselves have poked fun at the different series. More than once, the series reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.

Back in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there were two episodes told from the perspective of junior officers. The first was called “Tapestry” where the powerful alien Q shows Picard what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten into a fight which resulted in him needing an artificial heart. We learn Picard never took the chances he needed to be promoted and remained a junior officer. The next episode was “Lower Decks” about four junior officers up for promotion. Both episodes were good overall, but my problem was that the senior officers seemed too aloof and frankly snobbish around the junior officers. The dynamic felt more like Hollywood producers around interns from the back office than members of a team working together to explore the galaxy. Over my time in astronomy, I’ve had the opportunity to work with numerous well-known scientists in leadership positions, including Nobel Prize winners, and while some have been challenging to work with, most have been team players who recognized that everyone in the room was there because they had something to contribute no matter their level of seniority or what accolades they’d received. When I turn on a Star Trek episode, I want to see a team I’d want to be on as much or more than the one I’m on in real life. The Lower Decks animated series succeeded at this, possibly helped by the comedy premise. All of the characters are flawed, which puts them on much more equal footing as people, even when some of those people have more experience. What’s more, I felt as though the characters were having fun, which made me want to join them for the fun of exploration.

In graduate school, I was a fan of Matt Groenig’s comic strip, Life in Hell. I watched Groenig go on to develop The Simpsons and Futurama. I then watched other creators use a similar style in shows like Family Guy and Rick and Morty. In effect, Groenig’s style became the “adult animated comedy” style and we see it again in Lower Decks. I don’t dislike the style, but I found myself wondering if it would work for Star Trek. As it turns out, the style was adjusted to give it just a little more realism. While I was frustrated to see another American animation show forced to look a certain way because of its intended audience, I did find the actual look appealing and I soon warmed to the characters, in part because of solid voice acting and good scripts.

On a personal level, I loved the California-class ships named after the state’s cities. Growing up in California, I recognized all the ship names they’ve mentioned so far. I would love to see my old stomping grounds of San Bernardino or Barstow get a starship in a later season. The former seems like it would provide an opportunity to pay tribute to original series writer Jerome Bixby, who lived there. It might be fun to see it appear in an episode about the mirror universe that he created. Of course, Bixby’s stories were an early influence on my own writing, which you can learn more about by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Saturn’s Shrouded Moon

I love a good mystery and I love exploring new places. These two facts go a long way to explaining why I love astronomy. The universe is vast and we know so little about it. The NEID spectrograph at the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak is just getting started on its mission helping to learn about planets around other stars. The DESI spectrograph on the Mayall telescope is starting its mission of mapping the northern sky with hopes of understanding dark energy. Of course, dark energy is one of those fundamentally great mysteries because we see evidence of its existence, but we really don’t know yet what it is. Fun space operas like Star Trek or even my Space Pirates’ Legacy series make space exploration look inevitable and even easy, but in fact, we’ve barely started. People have only been to the moon a few times and robots have just visited a few of our neighbor worlds in our own solar system. We have almost a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today, I want to focus on one small world within our own solar system, Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s the second largest moon in the solar system and one covered with a dense atmosphere. It’s a place of real interest for those people seeking life in the solar system. The Cassini mission discovered that Titan has a salty sea underneath its icy crust. Its atmosphere is teaming with organic molecules that get deposited on its methane-ethane lakes and seas. We’ve sent a probe to Titan’s surface and we’ve even made good headway at mapping the surface. We’ve even started naming some of the features on Titan’s surface as you can see in this map from the US Geological Survey.

Map of Titan

By the way, you can download a good, high resolution PDF of this map at: https://planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov/Page/Images. It’s the one called Titan with VIMS Bacground and Radar Strips. I love that we have a map of Titan with this much detail, but this map also makes me think of old maps of the Earth with great undefined places. You can even imagine the legend “There be dragons here” somewhere on this map. We have learned a lot about the solar system and the universe in the last century, but this map makes it clear we still have a lot to learn about Titan.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing science fiction. I like to dream about the things we might find in the solar system and in the galaxy. I like to consider the more blurry places on the Titan map and wonder what might be there that could surprise us. In my novel, The Solar Sea, I imagine scientists discovering particles that travel through time on Earth’s moon. Once they understand the energy signature of these particles they go looking for them throughout the solar system and discover them in great abundance on Titan. This becomes the reason the Quinn Corporation decides to build a solar sail spacecraft to go find these valuable particles. The thing is, when they get to Titan, they look beneath the shroud and find…

Well, that would be spoilers. Fortunately though, you can get the book as part of the amazing Expansive Futures SciFi Bundle. The bundle includes eighteen great science fiction novels curated for the SFWA by Amy DuBoff. This is last call. The bundle is only available until Thursday March 4 at https://storybundle.com/scifi