Short Sleeps

When I tell people I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona, one of the first questions I’m asked is some variation of how that works, especially once they realize the two points are approximately 325 miles apart. The answer is that I have a dorm room at the observatory. Here’s what it looks like.

The room is assigned to me permanently, so as you can see, I’ve added some personal touches. This time of year, I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time in the comfort of my room. I often think of the period from November through February as the time of the short sleeps. It’s sort of a counterpoint to Clement Moore’s “long winter’s nap” from his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Of course, the reason this is the time of the short sleeps is because of the long winter night. At optical observatories, we try to maximize the time we’re on the sky and that means data taking starts soon after sunset and finishes just a little before sunrise. To get the telescope ready for observations, I actually have to be at work before sunset. How close to sunrise we work in the morning depends on the scientific requirements of the program, but it’s not uncommon for me to work right up until sunrise. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for me to get six hours of sleep through the day before starting another day of work. Even if I wanted to commute 325 miles each day, it would be impossible.¬† For that matter, living closer wouldn’t necessarily help. It’s still 50 miles to Tucson.

I’m often asked whether I can write during my long nights at the observatory. The reality is that work takes enough of my attention that I really can’t compose new material while I’m at work. However, sometimes we do get into situations where I’m monitoring a long exposure and just need to look up from time to time to make sure the instrumentation is behaving as expected. During those times, I find I can edit stories. I also sometimes bring a good book to keep me company on a long winter’s night.

A casual observer will likely notice from the photo of my room that I’m a fan of Cowboy Bebop. Of course, followers of this blog will know that I’m generally a fan of space cowboys and space pirates. A closer look at the photo will reveal some badges from past conventions tacked to the bulletin board in the background. My schedule is such that it’s not uncommon for me to go from an event directly to work at the observatory.

My favorite things in this photo, though, are two things made for me by my family. My wife made the crochet jackalope next to my bed, which helped to inspire the jackalope harvesters in my Clockwork Legion novels. My daughter drew the lightning wolf picture which hangs to the right of my bed. The lightning wolf is, of course, the mechanized bicycle designed by bounty hunter Larissa Crimson in the same series. I’ve shown off both of these in more detail in other posts.

Of course, the Clockwork Legion books make good companions through the long, dark nights of winter. You can learn more about the books by visiting the links at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

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October Adventures Continue

In my last post, I shared some of my adventures traveling around the country this month. Admittedly, a travelogue may seem a little out of place for a post appearing just two days before Halloween, but I’ll share a book at the end to put you in the spirit of the season and it’s even a quick read.

I left Kansas City on the train on Sunday night, October 14. By the time I woke up on Monday morning, the ground was covered in snow. I like traveling by train when I can. It’s a great way to see the countryside and although it takes longer than traveling by plane, it feels much more civilized. I enjoy flying, but the hassle of crowds, airport security, and flights filled to the brim take away much of the fun. Besides, my grandfather, dad, and brother all worked on the railroad, so I feel a certain family connection when I travel by rail.

I met my wife in Albuquerque where she brought my faithful Smart Car in for a service. We then drove down to Las Cruces with a brief stop in Socorro for some chicken mole enchiladas. For me, chocolate and chile come together to form the ultimate comfort food. After a four-hour sleep, I then drove to Tucson for a daytime shift at Kitt Peak where we’re continuing to refit the Mayall 4-meter for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Survey.

After three days on the mountain, I gritted my teeth for another short sleep, got up early in the morning to drive to the airport where I caught a plane for Denver, Colorado. There, I celebrated MileHiCon 50. The highlight of the event was that every living convention guest was invited back as a guest. Here you see them assembled at opening ceremonies.

MileHiCon is always a special for me because I get to connect with so many people I’ve worked with over the years. These include Bob Vardeman who was one of the honored guests and who created the Empires of Steam and Rust Series,¬† David B. Riley one of the co-authors of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys, J Alan Erwine and Carol Hightshoe who have edited many anthologies I’ve been in and who appeared in A Kepler’s Dozen. Denver is also home to Laura Givens, the talented artist who has done many of my covers, and also the co-author of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys.

A particular high point of MileHiCon was the annual poetry reading. This year it was moderated by Stace Johnson. Ronnie Seagren joined us and read poems by several different people. Sadly, Gail Barton, a staple of past MileHiCon poetry readings had passed away, but I was fortunate enough to have a copy of the poetry journal she often handed out at the event, which allowed me to share some of her poems. It was lovely to have her voice at the event at least one more time.

Once MileHiCon was finished, I returned to Kitt Peak to continue work on the DESI spectrograph. This time, I helped a team from Ohio State University build the racks that will hold the spectrographs themselves once they all arrive. I have to admit, building the racks was a process not unlike assembling a piece of Ikea furniture!

At last, I am back home for Halloween. I’m turning my attention to some editorial projects, including a new novella from David B. Riley and two great books from Greg Ballan. In my off hours, I’m reading some spooky comic books and watching a few hair-raising films.

If you’re looking for something good to read between trick-or-treaters on Wednesday night, may I recommend the collection Blood Sampler? This book collects thirty-five vampire flash fiction stories written by Lee Clark Zumpe and me. The cover is by Laura Givens and the book features interior illustrations by Marge Simon. Chris Paige, writing for the fan newspaper ConNotations in Arizona said, “If you like vampire stories, this may be the best seven dollars you can spend.” Admittedly the new edition of the paperback went up to $8.00, but the ebook is only $4.00. You can learn how to get your claws on a copy by visiting¬† http://www.davidleesummers.com/Blood-Sampler.html

First Responder Training

This past week at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I renewed my first responder certification. As I mentioned in my Saturday blog post, observatories are in remote locations and bad things do happen. I’ve been fortunate enough that I haven’t had to deal with much in the way of criminal activity at an observatory. I’m often asked if I have ever seen aliens at the observatory. My answer to that is that the law enforcement agency I’ve interacted most with at the observatory is the U.S. Border Patrol.

That said, things can be bad enough without people engaged in illegal activities. I have had to treat an astronomer who was stung by a scorpion. I also know of a time a person on the mountain suffered a heart attack, though did not go into cardiac arrest. As I approach the age my father suffered a fatal heart attack, I find myself grateful that many of my co-workers know CPR and have been trained in the use of Automated Electronic Defibrillators.

Even without worrying about heart conditions, I have also had more than my share of accidents. About a month before my oldest daughter was born, I was working on a telescope when I accidentally knocked a 15-pound weight off a ladder and it fell right into my jaw, puncturing my lower lip. Luckily I didn’t lose any teeth. More recently, an elevator became stuck. We were able to open the door and I jumped to the floor below to go find a ladder to get my fellow passengers out. I managed to sprain my knee in the process.

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, once we dial 911, it will take 45 minutes for the closest ambulance to make it to the observatory summit. Many observatories are even further from emergency response. Having a staff where many people have first responder training means we can help each other and help visitors during emergencies.

I strongly encourage you to get first responder training if it’s at all available. I have to admit, I don’t always remember all the lessons from the videos and practice sessions, but the training does give me the confidence to follow instructions from a 911 dispatcher when I call. I’ve also found that in those rare emergency situations, I’m surprised by how much I do remember.

Another aspect of first responder trainer that’s important to me is that it gives me experience I can draw on as a writer. Aspects of both Kitt Peak’s remote location and the training I’ve received as a first responder have gone into such novels as The Pirates of Sufiro. The novel is currently out of print, but I’m about to launch into a full rewrite in preparation of a fourth edition at my Patreon site. My Patreon site also helps to fund this blog and I currently have an initiative to raise enough money to upgrade this to an ad-free site. Drop over to my Patreon site and read two free stories of my new collection Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you sign on, you can read the rest of the collection for free, plus you can see how The Pirates of Sufiro develops in its new edition. I bet you’ll even see some examples of how I put my first responder training to use in my fiction writing. My Patreon site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

Chargers

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

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:

Ramping up the Refit

This past week, I’ve continued my work supporting the refit of the Mayall 4-meter telescope for the upcoming DESI spectrograph. DESI is the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument and it will be capable of measuring of the spectra of 5000 objects at a time. Its mission objective is to collect data to help us understand the nature of Dark Energy in the universe. We don’t yet know what Dark Energy is, all we really know is that appears to make the expansion of the universe accelerate with time. To be able to collect these 5000 spectra, the telescope needs a new top end. Indeed, the first thing I saw when I came to work on Monday morning was the old top end sitting on a flatbed trailer outside the telescope being ready to go into storage.

The Mayall 4-meter is a reflecting telescope and the primary optical component is a big 4-meter diameter mirror at the bottom. The light from that mirror is then focused at that top end and either collected by a camera sitting there at “prime focus” or a sent down to an instrument underneath the telescope using a secondary mirror. The top end held both the prime focus and the secondary mirror and could be flipped end-for-end to allow either to happen. DESI will have its 5000 fibers in a new top end and indeed, part of the reason for selecting the Mayall was to have a telescope sturdy enough to handle that large an instrument. At the moment, the telescope is missing its top end, but the new one will be installed soon. There are work platforms, which enabled people to loosen the old top end so it could be lifted out with a crane. The work platforms also keep the telescope structurally stable while there’s no top end in place.

The top end only holds part of the instrument. It will have 5000 optical fibers which may be precisely positioned onto target objects. The light from those fibers is sent along the fibers to spectrographs in an environmentally controlled room where the light will be spread out and photographed so it can be analyzed. In the dark energy survey itself, most people will be looking at the so-called redshift—how far the characteristic spectral “fingerprint” of certain chemicals shifts to the red as a result of its velocity away from us. However, those same chemical fingerprints may be used to understand properties of the objects being looked at and this data will be available to anyone who wants to use it.

Because dark energy is an exciting topic in its own right, but also because this project will be generating so much raw data that’s useful to so many astronomers, it’s a major worldwide undertaking. To break the light from the fibers into spectra will require ten spectrographs which will reside in a carefully climate-controlled room. An exciting milestone I got to watch this week, was unpacking the first of those spectrographs when it arrived from France. Below, you can see the engineers inspecting the optical elements. Note the rainbow visible on the corrector plate of the right-most optical element. That’s exactly what this device is built to do! Break the light into rainbows.

Today finds me in Phoenix, Arizona for Leprecon 44. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by and check out some of the panels and workshops.

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.