Making Instruments Work

Today, I’m at the TusCon Science Fiction Convention in Tucson, Arizona. You can get all the details about the event at http://tusconscificon.com. One of the topics I’ll be speaking about is the work we’ve been doing for the last year, installing the DESI Spectrograph on the Mayall 4-meter telescope. At this point, installation is nearing completion and we’re beginning the process of commissioning the instrument. In short, we’re actually making it work with the telescope so we can get the data we hope to obtain.

DESI isn’t the only instrument that we’ve recently installed. We’ve also installed the NEID spectrograph on the WIYN telescope. While DESI has the goal of making a 3D map of about one-third of the sky, NEID has the goal of looking for planets around other stars. I’ve shared quite a bit about the DESI installation because that instrument is of a scale that it required a major refit of the telescope. The NEID spectrograph has involved a similar amount of time in development, but much of that development has happened off site at places such as Penn State University and the University of Wisconsin. NEID, which rhymes with fluid, takes its name from the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.”

Two weeks ago, the port adapter, built by the University of Wisconsin, and the spectrograph, built at Penn State University, both arrived at WIYN and have been installed at the telescope. You can see the port adapter on the side of the telescope in the photo above. It’s job is to capture light coming through the telescope from a distant star and feed it into fiber optics that run downstairs to a high precision spectrograph.

The spectrograph itself lives in a clean room on the WIYN Observatory’s ground floor. To get the kind of precision needed to see planets around other stars, the temperature within the spectrograph must be carefully maintained and the spectrograph elements must be kept in the same relative position. Footsteps nearby could disturb this device. Because of that, the spectrograph itself is built inside a coffin-like housing. Once the Penn State team gets everything set up, they’ll seal up the coffin and, unless there’s a serious problem, no one will look inside again. I got to peak inside the spectrograph a few days ago and it may be my only view.

Now that the instrument is installed at the telescope, we have to make sure everything works as it should and programmers are working to make sure we have software to assure we can efficiently get the data we need. We’re starting with the port adapter itself. I point the telescope at stars and a team of scientists and engineers check the function of the various parts within the adapter to make sure they understand the alignments on the sky, which are necessary for tracking the stars. They check the tip-tilt electronics, which make sure we get as much of the star’s light as possible down the fiber, and make sure all the calibration functions work. After this, work will begin commissioning the spectrograph itself. This is a process which takes a few months to complete to assure we’re getting the performance out of this instrument that we want.

Commissioning nights are very different from normal observing nights at a telescope. On a normal observing night, it’s often me and an observer. Often the observer isn’t even at the telescope, but working from their home institution, controlling a camera on the telescope over the internet and talking to me through computer chat. On a commissioning night, I can have anywhere from five to fifteen people in the control room with me, all working on different elements of the instrument. This marks a busy and exciting time as we get these new instruments ready for service at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

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.

Celebrating Kepler’s Success

Over the course of nine years, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope helped astronomers discover more than 2700 planets. What’s more, the telescope collected so much data that almost a year after the mission’s completion, astronomers are still discovering planets. As each new planet was unveiled, we’d see an artist’s rendering, especially if the planet was deemed of general interest. In 2012, Dr. Steve Howell took the job of Kepler Project Scientist. Soon after, he came to me with an idea for visualizing planets in a much more immersive way than simply painting a picture. He wanted to see science fiction authors tell stories about the planets Kepler was discovering. That led us to create two anthologies about Kepler’s planets.

The annual Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale is underway. It gets its name because where I live in the northern hemisphere, readers are loading up their e-readers for great beach reading and vacations. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the middle of winter and people are spending time in a warm and cozy place reading. This is a great opportunity to celebrate the Kepler Space Telescope’s success by offering our anthologies for half off the cover price! Read on for more details!


A Kepler’s Dozen is an anthology of action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Edited by and contributing stories are David Lee Summers, author of The Pirates of Sufiro, and Steve B. Howell, project scientist for the Kepler mission. Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, thirteen exoplanet stories written by authors such as Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets.

“… the stories represent a glimpse of where science fiction might go if real exoplanets are taken as inspiration.” Melinda Baldwin, Physics Today

You can buy A Kepler’s Dozen for half off the cover price at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/325583


  • NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered thousands of new planets.
  • Visiting, much less settling, those worlds will provide innumerable challenges.
  • The men and women who make the journey will be those who don’t fear the odds.
  • They’ll be Kepler’s Cowboys.

Saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. Meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. Fight for justice in a lawless frontier. Go on a quest for a few dollars more. David Lee Summers, author of the popular Clockwork Legion novels, and Steve B. Howell, head of the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center, have edited this exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology of fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, L.J. Bonham, and many more!

“If you’re in the mood for science fiction that’s heavy on the science, pore over this enjoyable collection that takes exoplanets and the American West as its inspirations. The stories and poems in Kepler’s Cowboys imagine wild and risky futures for the first generations of exoplanet explorers as they grapple with harsh environments, tight quarters, aliens, and one another.” Melinda Baldwin, Physics Today.

Kepler’s Cowboys is available for half off the cover price at Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/698694

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 https://www.desi.lbl.gov/

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:

Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale 2018 – Science Fiction Spotlight

This month, the e-book retailer Smashwords is running their annual Summer/Winter sale, which runs from July 1 through July 31. Why summer/winter? That’s because it’s summer here in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere! All of Hadrosaur Productions’ titles published at Smashwords will be on sale for 50% off their retail price. All you have to do is enter the code SSW50 at checkout. Smashwords presents their ebooks in a variety of formats including mobi (which work on Kindles), epub (which work on Nooks), and PDF (which work on just about anything). For today’s post, I’ll be focusing on Hadrosaur’s science fiction titles at Smashwords. Check back next Saturday to learn about our fantasy titles and pick up a free bonus!


A Kepler’s Dozen

A Kepler's Dozen A Kepler’s Dozen presents thirteen action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. I edited this anthology along with Steve B. Howell, project scientist for the Kepler mission. Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, these exoplanet stories will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets.

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/325583


Kepler’s Cowboys

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered thousands of new planets.
Visiting, much less settling, those worlds will provide innumerable challenges.
The men and women who make the journey will be those who don’t fear the odds.
They’ll be Kepler’s Cowboys.

Saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. Meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. Fight for justice in a lawless frontier. Go on a quest for a few dollars more. David Lee Summers, author of the popular Clockwork Legion novels, and Steve B. Howell, head of the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center, have edited this exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology of fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, L.J. Bonham, and many more!

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/698694


The Solar Sea

Whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/805692


Sugar Time

Sugar Time

Her name is Sugar. Sugar Sweet. But never EVER call her “Sweetie.”

When Sugar’s Uncle Max falls ill and his collaborators disappear, she investigates the old Victorian mansion where he conducted his research. She soon finds the collaborators—or what’s left of them—along with an angry Neanderthal. She also finds her uncle’s research project, a working time machine. Sugar must act quickly to unlock the secret of time travel so she can set things right and protect her uncle’s research.

Sugar Time collects all four of Joy V. Smith’s Sugar Sweet stories into one volume. I had tremendous fun editing this volume. If you enjoy a good time travel romp, this might just be the book to put at the top of your summer reading list.

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/567992

Bon Voyage, TESS

This past week, my daughter and I watched live as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched into orbit. This satellite is the follow-up to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which was designed to point to a specific region of space known to have many sun-like stars and get a sense for how many of them have exoplanets. As it turns out, the answer is many! The only problem is that Kepler’s region of interest didn’t include many nearby stars. TESS’s mission is to look at stars close to Earth and see which ones harbor planets. Here’s the video of the launch for those who missed it.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the NEID Spectrograph on the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory where I work will be supporting and following up on TESS observations. This launch is a major milestone in the overall search for exoplanets. I gather it will take about two months for TESS to reach its final orbit. During that time, cameras and instruments will be tested to make sure everything made it through launch with no problems.

The most amazing part of the launch for me was to see how fast TESS made it into orbit, really only a couple of minutes after launch itself. And yet, with current technology, even the nearest exoplanets are still out of feasible travel range for humans. Despite that, I still have hopes that we’ll find destinations that we, as a species, will feel driven to explore. Once we do, I hope we’ll find ways to make the trip happen. In fact, one of the technologies that might allow a voyage to nearby solar systems is scheduled for testing later this year. The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy this summer. I imagine what a voyage through the solar system might be like using such a craft in my novel The Solar Sea.

Of course this is part of the reason that Steve Howell from NASA and I felt compelled to compile the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. They allow us to envision what the worlds we’ve been discovering might be like. They allow us to imagine life in new ways, and even to imagine exciting possibilities for things we could find on worlds that don’t harbor life as we know it. Of course, reality is such that what we discover will no doubt go far beyond what we imagine!

So, once the TESS and NEID teams start finding worlds near the Earth that we can imagine, will Steve Howell and I put together another anthology? I suspect there’s a good chance we will. Whether or not we do, I encourage writers to keep an eye on the discoveries because there will be plenty of inspiration for some cool science fiction stories in the coming years.

Learn more about the Kepler Anthologies and The Solar Sea at:

NEID – A New Way of Seeing Exoplanets

Last week, I talked a little about the work we’re doing refitting the Mayall 4-meter Telescope for the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument. However, it’s not the only construction going on at Kitt Peak. The WIYN 3.5-meter telescope, which I also work with, is getting a new spectrograph installed called NEID. Deploying NEID doesn’t require a full telescope refit like deploying DESI, but there’s still quite a bit of work happening in the building.

Most of the work right now is going into building a new bench spectrograph room. NEID is an acronym for “NN-explore Exoplanet Investigations with Dopler spectroscopy”. The word “neid” is also the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.” An appropriate choice, given Kitt Peak’s location on the Tohono O’Odham Nation in Southern Arizona. The goal of NEID is to provide the astronomical community with a state-of-the-art Doppler spectrograph to investigate exoplanets around nearby stars.

The way this will work is that an optical fiber assembly will be mounted to the telescope itself at the port in the photo to the right with the sign on it. That optical fiber will carry the light from the star to the new bench spectrograph downstairs where it will be spread out, like a rainbow. The reason for doing this is not to see a pretty rainbow, but to see dark lines interspersed through the rainbow. Those dark lines are like the star’s chemical fingerprint.

Now, here’s the fun part. When a planet moves around the star, it drags the star just a tiny amount toward the Earth which causes that spectral fingerprint to shift a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum. When the planet passes behind the star, it drags it away from the Earth and moves the spectral fingerprint toward the red end of the spectrum. Looking for this shift is the “Doppler” approach to finding planets that NEID will employ.

In addition to discovering new planets, NEID will be used to follow up observations by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and will help to determine masses and densities for planets TESS discovers. By the way, the NN-Explore that’s part of NEID’s acronym stands for NASA-NSF-EXoPLanet Observational REsearch. The current plan is to begin commissioning the instrument this fall and for regular observations to commence in 2019.

Being part of on-going research into planets around other stars is what inspired Dr. Steve Howell of NASA’s Ames Spaceflight Center and I to invite science fiction writers to imagine what these planets around other stars might be like. The results were our two anthologies, A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. You can learn more about the anthologies by clicking on their titles.

Once NEID goes online and starts making discoveries, Steve and I may have to “see” into the future and collect a third anthology. This time, including stories about planets discovered by a telescope on a mountaintop in Arizona’s Tohono O’Odham Nation.