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

How I Botched the Acetylcholine Test

I am a textbook introvert. As many sites on the internet will tell you, this is nothing unusual. All it really means is that much as I find interactions with people necessary and even rewarding, I can also find them draining. This would seem to be true of anywhere from 30-50% of the population. An upshot of being an introvert is the holidays can be especially draining with parties and gatherings. You would think I wouldn’t have found this year as draining given that gatherings have been discouraged. In fact, I didn’t go to any in-person events. While I did go to several online gatherings, as I noted in High Tech New Year’s Eve post, those were all pretty comfortable affairs with people I know well.

As a writer, I’m interested in what motivates people. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated to learn how much our brain chemistry affects who we are. I’ve found several articles that suggest that the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine play a strong role in who is an introvert and who is an extrovert. Simply put, introverts seem to thrive more on acetylcholine which makes us feel good when we turn inward. We feel gratified by long periods of time focused on a single task. Extroverts thrive more on dopamine, which can get released when you have positive interactions with others, such as a phone call that pushes your career forward or a strong romantic engagement.

A beautiful, quiet moment – the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as seen from outside the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope.

Now, I’m an astronomer, not a neurochemist, so I can’t vouch for how accurate this is. For that matter, I’ve come across some articles that suggest that dopamine and acetylcholine are far more intertwined in the brain than my simple description above would suggest. Still, it does mesh with my experience of really enjoying quiet tasks where I work by myself for long periods of time. It probably goes a long way to explaining why I like to write. So, I suspect there is some truth to something about my personality liking acetylcholine.

So, how did I botch the test? First off, I should explain that this post’s title is a reference to the classic Star Trek episode “The Immunity Syndrome.” In the episode, Mr. Spock has to fly a shuttlecraft into a giant space amoeba to save the Enterprise. While he’s there, he’s supposed to conduct some tests. Of course, he saves the day and everyone is happy, but Dr. McCoy points out that Spock didn’t do everything right. He tells Spock, “You botched the acetylcholine test!”

To this day, I’m not sure how Spock botched the test. I “botched the test” at a more personal level. At the moment, my work days at Kitt Peak National Observatory start around 4pm with a Zoom Meeting with various project collaborators. This meeting usually only lasts a few minutes, but then resumes again around 5:30pm with those collaborators who are observing. The Zoom meeting then lasts all the way until sunrise. Now, I’m not talking or interacting with the collaborators the whole night, but they are often interacting with each other and I do have to pay attention to plans for the night. I have no problem with this, but it can keep me from engaging in long, deep periods of concentration.

Also, I had planned a nice quiet period between Christmas and the New Year. I wasn’t scheduled to be at the observatory and I arranged a break from a collaborative creative project I’ve been involved in. As it turns out, I got a call on Christmas Eve from one of my editors, telling me notes on a story would be arriving that night. In short, the week turned into an intensive, albeit productive and gratifying, session whipping a story into shape for publication. I’ll tell you about that story in Saturday’s post. Once that was done, I had the nice New Year’s Eve that I talked about, then went back to work for more long observing nights with their accompanying Zoom sessions. Needless to say, I reached the first break of the new year feeling pretty wiped out.

I was suffering what some people know as an “introvert hangover.” For me, this takes the form of almost every interaction, no matter how benign, getting on my nerves. I try not to get to this point, but it does happen sometimes. Fortunately, we’re a family of introverts and we do our best to take care of each other when this happens. Also, I’ve been able to have some quiet time at the end of this most recent break from the observatory and I’m starting to feel myself again.

I hope your new year is off to a good start and you’re doing your best to stay healthy and well.

Once More Unto the Breach

On the early hours of March 16, I walked out of the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak, aware that the world had been gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, but thinking I would be back for my next normal shift. After all, a facility like Kitt Peak needs maintenance and care even when things were shut down and my team, the observing associates, were one group standing by to fill that role.

As the following week wore on, plans evolved. The number of people who would be on site would be significantly scaled back. Engineers were ordered to ready the telescopes and instrumentation at the observatory for a long-term shutdown. A very small skeleton staff would come to the mountain to maintain those systems that required attention. My team would work from home.

As it turns out, I had a productive spring and summer. One major job was creating a plan for safe reopening. Unfortunately, right as we started discussions of this plan, cases of COVID-19 began to rise dramatically in Arizona. We made our plan. It was reviewed by upper management and then we waited for cases to go down again. While waiting, I made strides on improving the operations manual for the Mayall 4-meter telescope. Not only did I revise it to discuss updated software for moving the telescope, I took some online courses in Cascading Style Sheets and Javascript and put those skills to use modernizing the look of the manual. It’s even mobile friendly, now, though I suspect that’s a function that won’t get much use! Still, we do have limited wireless in the building and I can imagine a future when people might access the site on phones or tablets.

David at the Mayall

On November 6, I returned to the Mayall telescope. I was the last operator to work during a commissioning run for the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument. I would be the first operator to wake up the sleeping giant and put it through its paces with some pointing and tracking tests. It turned out, after several hot, dry months, we found ourselves with a stormy weekend. Winds gusted as high as 75 miles per hour. We had fog, rain, and even snow. Despite that, we did have a few clear hours. We actually haven’t opened up the main mirror on the telescope. We only used a small pointing camera mounted to the telescope’s side, but it’s good to know the telescope still can point to targets on the sky as it’s designed to. We tracked a few targets for extended times. After my shift finishes, other observing associates will work with the DESI commissioning team to get the spectrograph itself running again. It should not be long before commissioning resumes and hopefully not long after that before the telescope begins regular science.

One thing that has been a challenge, is getting used to working within “bubbles.” As I’ve noted in posts before the shutdown, the telescope operators, DESI scientists, and any needed engineers would gather together in one big control room to do the night’s work. Since I’ve been back, I haven’t even stepped into the new Mayall control room. I’ve done all my work from the old console room, we though abandoned many months ago.

Working in the Old Console Room again.

A lead observer works alone in the new console room and we communicate using conferencing software. My meals are still prepared by the Kitt Peak cafeteria, but they’re delivered to the console room before I arrive. I get to heat them up in the microwave. So my days are mostly going between my dorm room and the console room. In the few times a night I do need to venture forth, I don my mask and check on the radio to make sure I’m not going to get within six feet of another person. It’s a little awkward, but not too different from working with observers who have signed in to work from their home institutions.

All in all, it’s a challenge getting used to this “new normal” while remembering everything required to operate the telescope. Still, it’s good to resume science operations. Shakespeare’s Henry V might look at us getting ready to resume science operations and say: “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start.”