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.

Assembling the Puzzle

This has been another week helping to install the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument or DESI at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. In short, the goal of DESI is to study the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. We plan to collect spectra of tens of billions of galaxies and quasars with the goal of making a three-dimensional map of the universe out to about 11 billion light years. You can read more about the DESI project at

The DESI project is spearheaded by Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California and being installed at Kitt Peak in Arizona. However, it really represents a worldwide collaboration. There are scientists working on this project from England, France, Spain, Italy, South Korea, China, France, Canada, Colombia, Australia, and others plus numerous institutions within the United States. All of these agencies are not only contributing expertise, but actually building components that will go into the finished instrument.

In an earlier post, I spoke about how we worked to remove the Mayall telescope’s original top end. The top end originally housed both a secondary mirror and a prime focus camera. Both of these have been used to make groundbreaking discoveries over the last five decades. The Mayall was the telescope Vera Rubin used to study rotation curves of galaxies, which led to the discovery of dark matter. I’ve helped with observations that have led to the confirmation of numerous exoplanets. We’re now replacing the telescope’s original top end with a new one that will hold 5000 fibers at prime focus. Each of those fibers will run to spectrographs that will break up the light from objects in the sky so it may be analyzed and the position of the object can be measured. In the photo above, you can see the new top end being assembled to the left of the telescope.

To get light from the sky onto the fibers, the telescope will collect it with the primary mirror. That sits in the big white structure at the center of the big blue horseshoe-like structure in the photo above. The mirror will direct that light to the top end. Because the mirror is curved, allowing the light to be collected and redirected, it means the focus changes across the field of view. To deal with that, you need to put some lenses in front of the fibers, sort of like glasses. Another real world problem of telescopes is that as you point toward the horizon, light gets spread out. So you need optics to compensate for where you’re pointing in the sky. Sort of like glasses that automatically adjust themselves for where you’re looking.

Scientists from England assembled those specialized “glasses” for the telescope. Those arrived last week and I was on hand during their assembly at Kitt Peak. You see those assembled optics in the lower photo. Scientists from Italy built the “Hexapod” pointing system, which keeps those optics aligned. That arrived and was tested about a month ago. Scientists from Fermilab in Chicago are responsible for integrating those systems and putting them together in the top end ring. That process will start next week. It’s all quite a puzzle and it’s been remarkable to see it all come together. It’ll be even more amazing to see what science it yields.

Of course, work at Kitt Peak helps to inspire my science fiction. As a reminder, this is the last weekend of the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale. You can learn about my science fiction books that are on sale at:

We also have fantasy and steampunk titles on sale. You can learn about them at:

A Vampire in Daylight

In my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order, I introduced Daniel McKee, a vampire who works as a telescope operator. In my novels, the vampires often need to find ways to earn incomes since I’ve always been a bit skeptical that it’s easy to stash away vast amounts of wealth given nothing but time. Of course, being vampires, my characters must find night work, which can be a challenge, especially in some professions. Fortunately, Daniel was an astronomer when he became a vampire, so his progression to an all-nighttime position wasn’t difficult.

Daniel is autobiographical only in the sense that he’s a telescope operator. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the Mayall 4-meter is undergoing a major refit. The entire top ring in the picture above will be coming off and replaced with a new top ring that holds 5000 optical fibers which will be used to collect light from millions of objects around the sky. Because the refit is so extensive and so time-consuming, there’s no nighttime work to do on the telescope, so those of us who work as telescope operators have been spending one shift a month supporting the refit operation during the day. I find myself wondering what Daniel would make of that!

In fact, Daniel would probably quit to find an operator’s position elsewhere. Otherwise, he might find work to do that would allow him to remain on a nighttime schedule, such as programming or manual writing. Sadly, Daniel would miss out on a fascinating engineering endeavor and some good camaraderie. In the photo above, the engineering crew is installing a scaffolding that will give them access to the telescope’s top end. However, the scaffolding isn’t just for access. It will help hold the telescope struts in place after the current top ring is removed and before the new one is installed. It will be sturdy to support people and to assure that the telescope will function after this exercise is over.

What’s more, observatories require more than night time staff to function. There is a large contingent of people who work at the observatory during the daytime. They support the infrastructure, such as water services, electricity, and internet. They provide engineering support, keeping the telescopes operational years after construction when original parts are no longer manufactured and the telescope must be upgraded to work with new electronics. This is a great team of people that I unfortunately don’t get to interact with on most nights because they go home right as I’m starting my work day. So it has been great to get to know some of these “unseen” co-workers.

Sadly once you become a vampire, even good people can look like a tasty treat, so perhaps it’s just as well Daniel wouldn’t interact with the observatory’s day staff, but I’m delighted I’ve had the opportunity!

You can read more about Daniel’s adventures in Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Learn more about the novel at:

The adventures of the Scarlet Order before Daniel became a member are featured in Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. Read a sample chapter and learn more at:

I will be signing both of these novels next month on the Friday, May 25 at Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans, Louisiana from 3-6pm. That’s the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. I’ll also be doing a special reading from the novels afterwards at Potions, an amazing speakeasy bar nearby. Be sure to drop by the signing to learn more about the reading. Mark your calendars!

Arizona and NM STEM Resources for Kids

At Phoenix Comicon, I was on a panel called “Growing Up With Science.” Our goal was to suggest ways to keep kids—and particularly girls and minorities—interested in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. This post attempts to collect several of the suggested places around Arizona and New Mexico parents can take their kids to investigate these fields. The photo below is from the Phoenix Comicon photo collection and shows the panelists: Dean Frio, Martha Alice, Karen Knierman, David Lee Summers, and Aireona Raschke.


The categories below are presented roughly in the order we presented them during the panel.

General Education Resources

School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University “is training the next generation of explorers and citizen scientists.” They offer a number of field trips, teacher workshops and partnerships with local schools, exploring astronomy and earth sciences. For more information, visit:

Ask a Biologist is a program at Arizona State University where kids can ask questions, access age-appropriate science articles, and interact with activities and online games.

Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center. Museums and visits to science facilities are a great way to interest kids in science. Kitt Peak offers year round tours and even night programs where people can observe with docents expert at interpreting the night sky. Get more information at:

Lowell Observatory is a center for astronomical research and works to bring the results of that research to the general public. They have an outstanding visitor center in Flagstaff and terrific online resources at:

Biosphere 2 serves as a center for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe. They offer guided tours to individuals and schools, plus they also offer teacher training programs. Learn more at:

Asombro Institute for Science Education works to foster an understanding of the Chihuahuan Desert through programs given to schools in Southern New Mexico and West Texas, plus programs offered at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park. Learn more at:

Experiences and Camps

Astronomy Camp is held each year at Kitt Peak National Observatory and run by Dr. Don McCarthy of the University of Arizona. It gives students hands on experiences in both astronomy and engineering. More information at:

MathMovesU is a program hosted by Raytheon which has a number of on-line activities and provides scholarships so kids can attend math and science events.

Phoenix Zoo Camp gives kids an opportunity to spend time during summer and winter breaks at the zoo engaged in activities learning about nature and animals. More information at:

Young Women in Computing is a camp hosted by the computer science department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. In addition to the camp itself, they host after school programs, contests, and teacher-program collaborations. They work not only with young women, but young men as well. Get more information at:

Citizen Science Projects

Citizen science projects are projects where you can contribute to projects and discoveries. Generally, you are given an on-line tutorial for the project then taken to a set of data that requires analysis. This is a great way for both adults and kids to contribute to real, on-going science projects.

Zooniverse is a literal clearing house of citizen science projects that can be done from your home computer with an internet connection. The projects range from astronomy, to biology, to climate. Find a project and get involved at:

Amazing Space uses the Hubble Space Telescope’s discoveries to inspire and educate about the wonders of our universe.

Gila Monsters at Saguaro National Park is a program where people can report Gila Monster sightings in and around Saguaro National Park and help preserve these amazing animals.

McDowell Mountains Citizen Science Program is the steward program that supports the McDowell Sonoran Field Institute by training and deploying volunteers on the various research projects. The program offers opportunities to Conservancy stewards as well as students and community volunteers. Get details at: