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.”


No, this isn’t a post about a football team that started in Los Angeles, moved to San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles. This past week, I operated the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. About halfway through the week, the charger circuit on the telescope failed. The WIYN is a telescope with a 3.5-meter primary mirror, making it the second largest aperture optical telescope at the observatory. This large telescope needs to track the sky as smoothly as possible to get the precise measurements we make of astronomical objects. Because of that, the motors don’t actually work off a power cord plugged into the wall that could be subject to brown outs or power spikes. Instead, we have a charger circuit that charges up a set of small batteries. The telescope drives actually are powered by the batteries, shown in the photo to the left.

Although I have some experience with electronics, I’m not actually an electrical engineer. When failures like this occur, my job is less to make a repair, but to see if I can find a way to limp along for the rest of the night and continue to take data in spite of the trouble. However, the circuit is so fundamental to the telescope’s operation and the problem bad enough that I couldn’t even limp along. We had to close up and wait for more expert help in the daytime.

Fortunately, our expert electronics crew was able to repair the charger circuit in less than a day, so we were back on sky and taking spectra of galaxy clusters the next night. What has always amazed me about the charger circuit on the WIYN telescope is that a bank of relatively small batteries can move a 3.5-meter telescope. Those batteries need to move the telescope in three axes. The obvious axes are altitude and azimuth. As WIYN tracks the sky, images rotate in the field of view, so there’s also a rotator that keeps north up in the images.

The charger system strikes me as a metaphor for my approach to seeking inspiration for my writing. The charger system takes current from the wall in whatever form it exists, uses it to charge batteries, which change the form of the current to produce good telescope motion. I take inspiration from my work in astronomy, from the books I read, the movies I see, and my time interacting with friends and family, allow myself to process that through my brain and turn that into the stories and novels I write.

I have taken variable star data with telescopes that use wind-up clock drives and that has helped to inspire and inform clockwork gadgets in my steampunk stories. I once helped an astronomer to take one of the deepest images of the center of our galaxy in the infrared, which helped me to imagine a voyage to the center of the galaxy in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. Working late nights on a lonely mountain top in meandering buildings informs my horror. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about some things that have inspired your writing in the comments below.

Explore the worlds I’ve created at http://www.davidleesummers.com