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.”

Virtual October

October has been a busy month filled with virtual events. I visited the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club and discussed my novella Revolution of Air and Rust about a week ago. Then, I spent much of this past weekend attending and presenting panels for Denver’s MileHiCon. Like most events in 2020, it was held virtually. While many events I’ve attended have been free, this one had a paid membership option, which allowed attendees to interact with people live as panels were presented. In the case of pre-recorded panels, panelists were often available to answer questions on Discord or the MileHiCon website. My reading for MileHiCon was from my novella Revolution of Air and Rust. I read the chapter where Pancho Villa attempts to raid a United States military camp in Chihuahua, Mexico, but then finds himself transported to another world.

Now that you’ve seen the reading, you may be interested to watch the virtual book club meeting where we discuss the book. This video is hosted at Facebook, but you do not need to be logged into see it.

Although there was a paid membership option, MileHiCon has generously placed most of the panels and presentations online at YouTube, so you can watch them, as with my reading above. This gives you a unique opportunity to watch the panels even if you couldn’t attend them as they premiered. You can find the presentations and panels at YouTube’s MileHiCon 52 virtual channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5Jb4d-cTGK9VkHoAEhePjw/videos

Before the convention, I recorded a presentation about Kitt Peak’s NEID Spectrograph which will be used to look for Earthlike planets around sunlike stars. Of course, when I proposed this presentation back in the spring, I fully expected we would have been observing and would have had results to share. I didn’t expect that we would just now be getting ready to return to observations. Still, I give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the spectrograph, describe how it works, and share some of the interesting results from NASA’s TESS mission.

In addition to my presentation, I participated in a panel discussion about “The Year in Science” with Ka Chun Yu, Will McCarthy, Steve Wahl, and Courtney Willis. Most of us on the panel were physical scientists, with two of us being astronomers, so we started out with a heavy emphasis on astronomy, but Will McCarthy steered the discussion to the year’s COVID-19 pandemic and the effort taken to defeat it and how we’ve learned to work in this year.

I encourage you to go over to the MileHiCon YouTube channel and check out many of the other presentation. You’ll find readings by people like Connie Willis, David Boop, Carrie Vaughn, Walter Jon Williams, Carol Berg, and S.M. Stirling. You’ll find even more science panels and panels discussing science fiction and fantasy writing.

As it turns out, I wrapped up the weekend with a couple additional virtual events. I discovered that YouTube streamed a recording of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds over the weekend. I’m a fan of the album, but this was the first time I actually got to see the entire stage performance. Unfortunately, the performance was only available for a limited time and it’s been taken down, but I was glad for the opportunity to watch. Also, I attended a nice interview with Charlaine Harris conducted by Steven Foley of the Vampyre Library Book Club in New Orleans. This interview is still available, but you have to be a member of the club to watch. Fortunately, membership is free and you can join at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/663608917753704/. My novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order is the featured book at the club for November, so if you join now, you can participate in my interview at the end of next month.

Mars at Opposition

On October 13, 2020, the planet Mars reached a position in its orbit called “opposition” with respect to the Earth. What this means is that the Sun, Earth, and Mars are all lined up so that the Sun illuminates Mars from directly behind us. It actually wasn’t Mars’s closest approach, that happened about a week earlier on October 6. I decided to take advantage of Mars’s opposition to get some photographs.

I used the 8-inch Celestron telescope I received as a high school graduation present in the 1980s. My camera is an Orion Starshoot Eyepiece Camera that takes video. I use free software called Registax 6 to grab frames from the video and combine them into a single, finished image.

The first set of photos I tried were on the night of October 11, just before opposition. It was the most beautiful, clear night I had seen in Las Cruces in a long time. Unfortunately it had been windy during the day, making the atmosphere fairly turbulent. As a result, the images weren’t as clear as I could have hoped. Still, I took two images about an hour apart and was excited to notice that I could see that the planet had rotated from one frame to the next. Note, in the caption below, I use “Universal Time” or “UT” which is based on Greenwich Mean Time. Here in the Southwestern United States, around this time of year, midnight UT happens about an hour before sunset. It can be a convenient way for astronomers to measure time

While preparing for this blog post, I discovered that the website for Sky and Telescope Magazine has a very nice tool that lets you determine the longitude of Mars facing us at a given time of the night. You can find the tool at: https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/interactive-sky-watching-tools/mars-which-side-is-visible/#

With the longitudes in hand, I went back to my handy copy of A Photographic History of Mars: 1905-1961 by E.C. Slipher of Lowell Observatory and found photos of Mars that are similar to the longitudes I show in my photos above. It was gratifying to see my images with an 8-inch telescope compare somewhat favorably with images attained by the Lowell Observatory 24-inch telescope in 1941.

I went back out on the night of October 17, which proved to be a much more stable night. Unfortunately, there were some high clouds, but in my experience, those sometimes stabilize the atmosphere. I took a longer sequence of images and obtained a truly beautiful image of Mars. Just for comparison sake, Sky and Telescope’s calculator says it would be centered on longitude 200 degrees, which is close to the left image above.

Mars at 3:43UT on October 18.

I was very pleased with this last image about five days after opposition. It compares very well with images that were taken at Lowell Observatory on photographic plates. I also noticed that I captured a very small hint of the north polar cap in my photograph.

For fun, I also took images of Saturn and Jupiter both nights. The ones from October 11 aren’t very good, but here are my images from October 17.

Saturn

When I took my image of Jupiter, I wanted a “family portrait” showing the planet with the four Galilean moons that are easily visible in my 8-inch telescope. As it turns out, the human eye has better dynamic range than my Orion Starshoot camera. To photograph the moons, I had to overexpose the planet. So the image below is a little bit of photographic trickery. I took an image to capture the moons, then I took a second image to capture details on the planet. As the two images were taken back to back at the same orientation, I just overlaid one image over the other to get my family portrait. The moons, from left to right are Ganymede, Io, Callisto, and Europa.

A Jovian family portrait.

As I write this, preparations are underway to reopen Kitt Peak National Observatory after it was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once I get back to work, I’ll be working with much larger telescopes and much more sophisticated instrumentation than my 36-year old Celestron and its little video camera. Even so, there’s nothing like sitting out on a dark night, looking across the gulf of space and dreaming of what it would be like to visit the planets in person.

Documentation

Kitt Peak National Observatory is one of many large observatories around the world shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally, I was part of a skeleton crew scheduled to be on site making sure there were no problems with site infrastructure during the shutdown. However, management decided to reduce that crew, pulling our team from the rotation for the time being. So my main job at the moment is working on telescope documentation from home.

This is an important job. Four years ago, the control system at the Mayall 4-meter went through a major hardware and software upgrade in preparation for the Dark Energy Survey Instrument (DESI) that we’re now using. Those of us who operate the telescope learned how to do things on the fly before the telescope was shutdown for the actual DESI upgrade. During that period, the programmers and engineers who did the control system upgrade were, of course, occupied installing DESI and making it work. The upshot is that it’s now time to actually document how the new control system works.

As it turns out, a lot of the basic “how do you make the telescope go” level of documentation is already complete. That’s stuff I was able to do before and during the DESI upgrade. The stuff I’m working on now is more “under the hood” level documentation. For example, the image above shows two sets of coordinates: Target and Sky. Both are the same in the picture. The kind of information I need from a programmer is what does he mean when he refers to the “Target” coordinates and what does he mean when he refers to the “Sky” coordinates. It turns out, the two should only be different if you know the telescope is slewing from one target to another, or the servos are turned off and the telescope is not tracking the sky.

The other day, I shared a news article about the closure of observatories on social media. I received a lot of surprise from people. Observatories are, after all, remote places and you’d think they’re about as “socially distant” a place to be as possible. In fact, on my last night of observing, I shared a control room with an observer from the UK and one from Mexico and we even joked about that a little. Look back at the previous sentence, though, and you actually see part of the problem. Large observatories attract observers and tourists from all around the world. We may not have a lot of people on site, but they are people who have traveled far to get there, possibly exposing themselves to the virus on the way.

Even if we closed down to just remote operations where only local people were allowed at the observatory, we’d still have a problem. If something breaks, you often need a team of engineers and technicians to get it operating again. You could imagine allowing the observatory to run until something breaks, and then just leaving it at that point until someone could fix it. The problem with this scenario becomes clear if you imagine a situation where the broken mechanism is the dome shutter and rain is approaching, which could, in turn, damage the telescope and instrumentation.

Fortunately, even though many large telescopes are shut down, many smaller facilities are still operating and monitoring the skies for “transient” objects like asteroids and supernovae. Science is still happening. It’s not quite full stop as far as monitoring the skies. Many of these smaller facilities only require one or two people on site to fix problems. So there’s much less danger in this case.

Related to my job at the observatory, I heard an interesting statement from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US Infectious Disease Specialist. In an interview with CNN, he said, “What we’re seeing right now are some favorable signs. It’s looking like that in many cases particularly in New York we’re starting to see a flattening and turning around. We would want to see … I would want to see a clear indication that you are very very clearly and strongly going in the right direction.” What really struck me in this description of early signs the COVID-19 pandemic may be improving is how much it reminded me of how I describe safe conditions to open the telescope for observing after bad weather has closed us down. Let’s say humidity or wind are too high for the telescope to be open safely. We have officially stated limits for when we can open, but sometimes I don’t open right at those limits and I give an explanation similar to Dr. Fauci’s. It’s all too easy for wind or humidity to have a momentary downward blip, then come up again right away. We want to see a clear indication that conditions are improving. Let’s hope the pandemic turns around soon and we get the clear, strong indications that we’re moving in the right direction.

New Year’s Eve at Kitt Peak

Earlier this week, I rang in the new year while on the job, helping observers commission the DESI spectrograph on the Mayall 4-meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Looking back, I see I rang in eight years of the last decade at the observatory. So, working on New Year’s Eve is getting to be something of a tradition for me.

Working at the observatory on New Year’s Eve is much like working on any other night of the year. It all starts out with me evaluating the weather. In the photo, I’m standing in front of the Mayall, watching the sunset. Throughout the week I had watched a forecasted storm for the night get downgraded to the point that we expected reasonable observing conditions. The night actually arrived with dark clouds and light snow. Not only was this unwelcome for observing, but New Year’s Eve was the last night of my shift and I didn’t relish the idea of driving on snowy roads.

The poor weather didn’t keep us from our commissioning work. On an instrument where 5000-robotic fibers must be precisely aligned with targets on the sky and then send the light from those targets to ten spectrographs, there’s still plenty of work that may be accomplished with the dome closed. We started with some spectrograph calibration tests, trying to answer whether it matters where the telescope is pointed when we calibrate the instrument. There was some concern about whether or not twisting of fibers at different telescope orientations might make subtle changes to the light going through them and affect the measurements we hope to make. This is important to understand and characterize before we start making measurements.

Another job we had was to test a camera that looks at the fibers on the telescope. That’s how we know the fibers are on the correct objects. We can test this camera because DESI includes some fibers that can be illuminated. This means the fiber view camera can see the position of some fibers even when we’re not looking at the sky. The telescope itself is big and flexes as it points around the sky. Understanding how objects appear on the fiber view camera depending on where we point is also an important job. We can do a lot by pointing the telescope in the closed dome with the test fibers illuminated.

Testing a new, complex system also uncovers software bugs and errors in procedure. The lead software developer on this project is fond of using barnyard sounds like a chicken clucking or a cow mooing when an error occurs. So, these sounds do occasionally intrude into our work, which means the software people need to debug code or help observers refine procedures. This is also productive work for a cloudy, snowy night. I’m also convinced that I need to find a way to work barnyard noises into some future high-tech science fiction space opera!

At 10pm, we tuned into the live feed from Times Square in New York to watch the ball drop while we worked. At midnight, we took enough of a break to toast the new year with mugs of coffee. Kitt Peak National Observatory is on the land of the Tohono O’Odham, so no alcohol is allowed, even if we weren’t working.

When the decade started, I thought of myself as “the temp” on the operations staff at Kitt Peak. I returned to Kitt Peak after nearly fifteen years to help the observatory with a staffing challenge and stabilize my income long enough to achieve some personal goals. Ten years later, I’ve achieved most of my goals, but I still think of myself as “the temp.” It’s an attitude that serves me well.

In the current political climate, I can’t guarantee my job will always be funded so I don’t take for granted I’ll have this job for an indefinite period of time. More importantly having the attitude of being “the temp” assures that I always feel free to speak my mind when needed and avoid self censorship, which is important in a job where I’m responsible for the safety of visitors. Also like any good temporary employee, I want to stay in the good graces of my employers, so it assures that I always try to do my best and constantly hone my craft.

As one decade finishes and another begins, I’m thankful to have a good and interesting job expanding humankind’s knowledge of the universe, but I also stand ready to take on whatever challenges that universe decides to throw at me in the coming decade.

Stars Wobbling at the Speed of a Desert Tortoise

In recent posts about new observing projects at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve largely focused on the DESI spectrograph which aims to create a three-dimensional map of the northern sky. In fact, I’m in Denver, Colorado this weekend at MileHiCon and I’ll be giving a presentation on this very subject. However, this isn’t the only new instrument I’m helping to deploy and commission.

At the WIYN 3.5-meter we’re installing a spectrograph called NEID. Kitt Peak sits on the land of the Tohono O’Odham people in Southern Arizona. The acronym is derived from the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.” The actual acronym is: NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy. In other words, it’s an instrument that will be used to look for planets around other stars. Like the DESI spectrograph, fiber optics are mounted to the telescope and feed a spectrograph two floors below the telescope. Just over a week ago, I helped to run the fibers from the point the instrument will be mounted down to the spectrograph room. In the photo, you can see the fiber optic cable laid out like undulating waves at the base of the telescope. The instrument itself will be mounted at the round port that currently has the white, rectangular sign.

The way a spectrograph like NEID finds planets around other stars is by measuring how much they move toward and away from the Earth when they’re pulled by orbiting planets. You likely see spectra all the time. A rainbow is a spectrum of the sun. In a spectrum are characteristic lines caused by elements in the star’s atmosphere. When a planet tugs the star toward Earth, those lines move toward the blue end of the spectrum. When a planet tugs the star away, the lines move toward the red end. Of course, one of the hopes of exoplanet science is to detect Earth-like planets around other stars, or more specifically, Earth-sized planets in the zone around a star where water can be liquid. If you imagine watching our sun from another star, we’d see the Earth pull the sun toward or away from us at about 30 centimeters per second, or about the speed of a desert tortoise!

To see this small motion, you need to be able to see the spectra—the rainbow—at very high resolution. This is more than magnification. You need to see it at great detail. A spectrograph that can do that is often fairly big and it’s very difficult to mount it to the side of a moving telescope. This is why we use a fiber to capture the light and send it to a spectrograph in a different room. This allows the engineers to build the spectrograph as big as they need, but only requires them to mount the fiber to capture the light to the telescope.

Fiber optic cable is meant to be tough, but it can break, so it’s gratifying after we make the run to be able to shine light through the cable and see it at the other end, as we see in this post’s second photo!

Besides looking very specifically for Earth-like planets, the NEID spectrograph will be providing support for NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, mission, which is searching for exoplanets around the closest stars to Earth. Once TESS discovers a planet, we can observe it with NEID and get more precise mass and density information about the planet. Such measurements help us better understand the composition and formation of the planets around other stars. It’s a very exciting time at Kitt Peak as we deploy these spectrographs which will help us understand both planets in our galactic neighborhood and the overall structure of the universe.

Successful Solar Sailing

The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 spacecraft launched into orbit on June 25, 2019 and deployed its 32-square meter sails almost a month later on July 23. In the time since sail deployment, it raised its orbit some seven kilometers. Here we see a great shot of the LightSail 2 over Australia.

LightSail 2 image courtesy The Planetary Society

In 1619, astronomer Johannes Kepler noticed that comet tails always point away from the sun and realized that some solar force must produce that effect. Two centuries later, in 1862, James Clerk Maxwell suggested that light has momentum and it was finally demonstrated in 1900. The goal of the LightSail 2 mission was to show that momentum from light could propel a spacecraft. The process of solar sailing is not unlike sailing on the water, only in space, gravity acts like water currents while light acts like wind. As with a sail at sea, the sails must be turned in flight to take the best advantage of the “wind” while the ship moves on the “current.” LightSail 2 accomplishes this via internal reaction wheels. The gif below shows how the sail is turned to take the best advantage of sunlight and raise its orbit.

Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

The following graph shows the elevation of LightSail2 over the course of the mission. The apogee is the highest point in orbit, the perigee is the lowest point. At LightSail2’s elevation, there are two forces working on the sail besides gravity. The first is light pressure from the sun. The other is atmospheric drag from the Earth. Even though LightSail 2 is in a relatively high orbit, it’s still in the most tenuous parts of the upper atmosphere. The upshot is that the apogee increases because of light pressure, but the perigee decreases because of atmospheric drag. That noted, LightSail 2 has accomplished the mission it set out to do, demonstrate that light can propel a spacecraft.

Image from the LightSail Mission Control Page supported by the Planetary Society

You can keep up to date with the LightSail mission and visit their mission control page by going to http://www.planetary.org/explore/projects/lightsail-solar-sailing/#the-lightsail-2-mission.

It’s worth noting this is a technology in its infancy. That said, with the lessons learned from this mission, there’s promise that solar sails could be used for small unmanned probes in the not-too-distant future, or perhaps they could be used to deflect dangerous asteroids, especially if caught early enough that they only need a small nudge.

In the long run, with much more development and technical innovation, I would like to think solar sails could be used to propel humans across the solar system as I imagine in my novel The Solar Sea. In a little under a week, on Friday October 11, Lynn Moorer will interview me about the novel on her radio show from 12:30-1:00 pm mountain daylight time. If you’re in Las Cruces, you can tune in to 101.5 FM on your radio dial. If you aren’t in Las Cruces, or just don’t listen to shows on the radio, you can stream the show at  https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html. It looks like KTAL Community Radio is building up their archive of past shows, so I’m hoping I can share these interviews with you soon. If you want to read the book before the interview, you can find all the places it’s available by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html.

Cable Wrangling

In previous posts about the DESI spectrograph being installed at Kitt Peak’s Mayall 4-meter telescope, I’ve focused on the 5000 robotic positioners at the telescope’s focal plane, which is up at the top of the telescope, and the ten spectrographs located in a climate controlled room at the telescope’s base. However, I haven’t talked a lot about how the light from the 5000 positioners gets down to those spectrographs. The light travels along optical fibers that run from the telescope’s focal plane down to the room with the spectrographs. The whole distance is roughly 40-meters (or a little less than the length of half a football field).

In the photo to the left, you can see the cables running along the front of the telescope at this angle. They’re draped over the blue horseshoe structure in the foreground. Several of the cables are draped down in the lower left-hand side of the photo. There are ten cables that run from the top of the telescope to the room with the spectrographs. Each cable contains 500 individual optical fibers. Each of these cable bundles feeds one of the spectrographs at the telescope’s base. Since each cable contains 500 optical fibers, they are heavy cables. They’re also very fragile. It would be challenging enough to run these fibers from one point to another if they could be locked down in one position. However, the telescope actually has to move, so we can look at different parts of the sky. This means these heavy, fragile cable bundles have to move too.

Before construction even began on the DESI spectrograph, engineers spent time figuring out the best way to run the cables that minimized how much they had to move. Also, there are devices called e-chains that help assure cables stay nice and neat as the telescope moves. This past week, one of the engineers snapped a photo of me helping to prepare one of the e-chains for installation. He was in a lift up near the telescope’s top and looked down at me and another one of the telescope engineers hard at work. I’m the one in the yellow hard hat.

As I mentioned earlier, these cables are both heavy and fragile. That means there’s been a lot of heavy lifting that requires a great deal of care about where we step and place the cables. We don’t want to bend them too tightly, or they could break. The upshot is that this has been exhausting work. Everyone feels wiped out at the end of the day.

Still, we see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, or perhaps that should be the light at the end of the fiber! Once the cables are run, we only need to install the last three spectrographs, then the system will be complete. How soon we’ll start observing with the DESI spectrograph will depend on the results of preliminary testing which has already commenced and will be finished soon after the installation is complete. That said, I am told there’s a very good chance we’ll be pointing DESI at targets on the sky in less than a month. At that point, we may start to understand more about this mysterious thing that astronomers have dubbed dark energy.

A Puzzling Sunday

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a Star Trek puzzle I saw in the toy store. I think the image was taken from one of the Gold Key comic book covers. I don’t remember how many pieces it was, but it wasn’t an “easy” puzzle because a lot of the pieces were black with stars. Even as a kid, I was obsessive enough that I stuck with it until it was finished.

From that point on, every time a distant relative or family friend asked what kind of gift they should give me, my parents would say jigsaw puzzles. As a parent myself, I can see why. They often have nice pictures and they’re relatively inexpensive, so it doesn’t feel like you’re imposing on those relatives asking for suggestions. The problem is, after doing that first jigsaw puzzle, even though I stuck with it and completed it, I discovered that I didn’t especially like doing it. What’s more, many later puzzles I received had pictures I didn’t even like that much. Oh, they were often pretty enough, but I’d rather see a mountain valley than put together a puzzle with a photo of one.

My wife, though, loves puzzles. She does tell people that she wants puzzles with photos or illustrations she likes, but she is very good with any jigsaw puzzle. Even without looking at the box lid, I’ve seen her pull out random pieces and start putting them together and I’ve seen her put 500-piece puzzles together in under two hours. My daughters have also inherited some of this puzzle skill. So, when our local comic shop started having puzzle tournaments, I suggested to my wife that she should enter. Up until a week ago, she competed in four tournaments with one of my daughters and a friend or two on the team and they’ve won all four. So, it surprised me this past weekend when my wife asked me to join them for the puzzle tournament.

The way these tournaments work is that every team is given the same puzzle. The team gets two hours to work on the puzzle. The first team to complete the puzzle wins. If no one completes it, the team with the largest number of assembled pieces wins. We were given a 1000-piece puzzle featuring an illustration based on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The illustration was largely shades of red and gray. On the team with me were my wife, my youngest daughter and a friend of my daughter’s from school.

Although I’m not altogether a fan of assembling jigsaw puzzles, I’m not bad at them. I’m a sufficiently old-school astronomer that I had to become really good at pattern matching to identify star fields in a telescope eyepiece or on a computer monitor. That old Star Trek puzzle way back probably helped me hone that skill. As an editor, I look for misspelled words and bad grammar. I can see how things fit together from seemingly random patterns. I went along to the tournament for the sake of family together time.

At the end of two hours, we had 261 pieces assembled, a little over a quarter of the puzzle and we were the tournament winners. Our prize—another puzzle. This one was a Scooby-Doo puzzle, that looked a little more to our taste. My wife is now five-for-five at the local comic shop’s puzzle tournaments. She plans to return for at least a couple of more rounds and will compete in the final round at the end of the year. Whether I go back and compete again will depend on how the tournament days line up with my schedule.

This was probably the most fun I had working on a jigsaw puzzle and from what I saw, all the teams had fun. I think for me, the most fun part was spending time and collaborating with my family. I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished. Stories are not unlike jigsaw puzzles for me in that they often start with flashes of scenes and moments of characters doing something and I really want to see how they all fit together. I think the reason they satisfy me more than puzzles is because I’m the one who created the picture that appears when it’s all finished.

Another fun thing that happened on Sunday is that author Stephanie Kato interviewed me at her blog. Click here to read that interview and learn a little more about me.

DESI Naked!

This weekend finds me at Bubonicon 51 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m moderating panels about space cowboys and large scale scientific surveys. If you’re in town, click the link to get the details and drop by. I’d love to see you there. Of course, part of my interest in large scale scientific surveys has to do with the work I’ve been helping with over the last year and a half, installing the DESI Spectrograph at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. During my my recent shift at the observatory, I got a rare look at the new instrument not just “under the hood” but before the hood even went on.

In the photo above, you see DESI on the left, just over the orange platform. Standing on the ground floor in the foreground are just a few of the telescope engineers and technicians who have been installing this new, innovative instrument which will be used to make a 3D map of about a third of the known universe. DESI itself is an array of 5000 fibers mounted on robot positioners that can be precisely centered on targets each time the telescope moves. The light from those objects then travels down fibers two stories below. The fiber bundles are ready to be run along the telescope. You see them coiled up on the white carts to the lower right of the photo above. Each black cable contains 500 fibers. One of my jobs this week was labeling those cables so people can keep it straight which cable is which as they run them along the telescope.

Here are all the DESI fiber positioners mounted to the telescope. You can see each of the ten cables coming up into ten sets of fiber positioner “petals.” Each of these petals was installed into the telescope with great care about a month ago. Light was placed on all the fibers and it was confirmed that in all the transportation and installation, none of the fibers were broken. All of them transmit light as expected! This week, the control electronics are being wired up and routed through the telescope. Once this chore is complete, more testing will happen to assure that the fibers still transmit light and each of the robot positioners moves as expected using the electronics routed through the telescope.

All of those fibers will eventually come into a clean room downstairs to a series of ten spectrographs. Do you begin to sense a pattern? Ten petals, ten cables, ten spectrographs. As it turns out, another job of mine this week was helping to install the seventh spectrograph, which you see in the lower right of the photo above. Western fan that I am, I feel like you can now cue Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven. Of course, that won’t last long. soon we’ll have an eighth, ninth, and tenth spectrograph.

Each of those spectrographs will be used to examine the light from 500 fibers. To make the map, we’ll be using these spectrographs to see how far characteristic chemical lines in spectra have shifted from where they normally sit within the rainbow toward the red end, which is one measure of how far away those objects are. We’ll compare that to statistics of how far apart they are, which turns out to be another measure of how far away they are. That said, just because we’re mostly looking for the redshifts, there will be all kinds of other spectral data available that can tell astronomers all kinds of information about properties of galaxies all over the sky. One of the most exciting things about the DESI program is that this data will be available to all. In this post, I may be laying DESI bare for all to see, but the whole project will be laying much of the universe bare, and in the process expanding the body of astronomical knowledge.

  • For a fictional and frightening look behind the scenes at an astronomical observatory, read The Astronomer’s Crypt.
  • To take a tour through the wonders of the solar system, read The Solar Sea.
  • To travel back in time to the Old West, check out Owl Dance!