Saturn’s Shrouded Moon

I love a good mystery and I love exploring new places. These two facts go a long way to explaining why I love astronomy. The universe is vast and we know so little about it. The NEID spectrograph at the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak is just getting started on its mission helping to learn about planets around other stars. The DESI spectrograph on the Mayall telescope is starting its mission of mapping the northern sky with hopes of understanding dark energy. Of course, dark energy is one of those fundamentally great mysteries because we see evidence of its existence, but we really don’t know yet what it is. Fun space operas like Star Trek or even my Space Pirates’ Legacy series make space exploration look inevitable and even easy, but in fact, we’ve barely started. People have only been to the moon a few times and robots have just visited a few of our neighbor worlds in our own solar system. We have almost a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today, I want to focus on one small world within our own solar system, Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s the second largest moon in the solar system and one covered with a dense atmosphere. It’s a place of real interest for those people seeking life in the solar system. The Cassini mission discovered that Titan has a salty sea underneath its icy crust. Its atmosphere is teaming with organic molecules that get deposited on its methane-ethane lakes and seas. We’ve sent a probe to Titan’s surface and we’ve even made good headway at mapping the surface. We’ve even started naming some of the features on Titan’s surface as you can see in this map from the US Geological Survey.

Map of Titan

By the way, you can download a good, high resolution PDF of this map at: https://planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov/Page/Images. It’s the one called Titan with VIMS Bacground and Radar Strips. I love that we have a map of Titan with this much detail, but this map also makes me think of old maps of the Earth with great undefined places. You can even imagine the legend “There be dragons here” somewhere on this map. We have learned a lot about the solar system and the universe in the last century, but this map makes it clear we still have a lot to learn about Titan.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing science fiction. I like to dream about the things we might find in the solar system and in the galaxy. I like to consider the more blurry places on the Titan map and wonder what might be there that could surprise us. In my novel, The Solar Sea, I imagine scientists discovering particles that travel through time on Earth’s moon. Once they understand the energy signature of these particles they go looking for them throughout the solar system and discover them in great abundance on Titan. This becomes the reason the Quinn Corporation decides to build a solar sail spacecraft to go find these valuable particles. The thing is, when they get to Titan, they look beneath the shroud and find…

Well, that would be spoilers. Fortunately though, you can get the book as part of the amazing Expansive Futures SciFi Bundle. The bundle includes eighteen great science fiction novels curated for the SFWA by Amy DuBoff. This is last call. The bundle is only available until Thursday March 4 at https://storybundle.com/scifi

The Masque of the Red Death

In November 2020, I resumed my regular commute to Kitt Peak National Observatory to operate the Mayall 4-meter and WIYN 3.5-meter telescopes. The observatory is quieter now than it was in March 2020, when I worked my last shift before the observatory closed for the pandemic. Only approved staff, tenants, and contractors are allowed on the mountain. The visitor center is closed and no tours are given. Still, twice a month, I make the drive to the observatory from my home in Las Cruces, New Mexico to the observatory west of Tucson, Arizona. I have an old iPod Classic that keeps me company on my drives. Sometimes I listen to audio books. Sometimes I just put it on random shuffle and see what plays. This week, after a nice assortment of songs, the iPod played Basil Rathbone’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” While it may seems a little silly to worry about spoilers in a 179-year-old short story, I may share some in this post. If you haven’t read the story, here’s a link to it at Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia: https://www.poemuseum.org/the-masque-of-the-red-death

I’ve always enjoyed this story, but it seemed to take on a more personal meaning now that we’re living through a pandemic. Poe’s “red death” is fictitious, but COVID-19 is real. I’ve known several people affected. Also, when I walk through my neighborhood, I often walk through the local cemetery, which is a quiet place with little traffic. However, I have noticed that it’s been much busier during the months of the pandemic. There have been times when I’ve seen the grave diggers preparing three or four graves in a single day. Before the pandemic, I typically saw them digging fewer than one grave per week.

As the story opened and Basil Rathbone described the crenelated abbey and all of its compartments, I found myself thinking of the remote observatory, high on a mountaintop. Each dome and building a little like the compartments of the story.

Kitt Peak National Observatory

While at the observatory, I tend to be alone in my “bubble,” whether that be in my dorm room or at the telescope. However, when I’m outside of my bubble, I wear a mask. Though my mask may not be a festive one, it still struck me when Poe described the masked revelers Prince Prospero invited to the abbey. Also, while I may be alone, I’m often on a video conference with several people taking data, so it can be something like a revel. I’m far from a prince like Prospero. Some days I feel more like the jesters or the staff in the abbey, still I know I’ve been fortunate to have relative job security during this year that’s been difficult for so many people.

Donning my mask for the festivities

The rooms where I work have new air cleaners and UV lights. Again, these new features bring to mind the eerie atmosphere of the apartments in the abbeys, but I stay alone in my bubble and these things have been installed to keep away the uninvited guest who crashed the party in Poe’s story.

This little exercise just goes to show how the best stories have a lasting power and can maintain a personal relevance. It also shows how I sometimes can see beyond the ordinary world around me into something fantastical. It’s much the process I used when writing my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. I took what I had experienced at observatories I’d worked at and stretched those experiences just a little bit and asked what could be. The hope is that I produced something that’s both realistic and scary. And I hope the scares work because they seem like they could happen. If you want to learn more about the novel and watch the book trailer, visit: http://davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

NaNoWriMo-ish

November is the National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. During the month, many authors endeavor to write 50,000 words. While that won’t count as a complete novel for most publishers these days, it’s a large chunk of a novel. To reach 50,000 words in one month, you have to write about 1,667 words per day. You can even sign up to participate at nanowrimo.org and to find tools, structure, community, and encouragement to help you succeed. My daughter has signed up and participated for the last couple of years. Although I didn’t officially sign up to participate in NaNoWriMo, I wrote two novels as NaNoWriMo challenges when LBF Books was publishing my novels.

The Solar Sea

The first of my NaNoWriMo novels was The Solar Sea, which I wrote in 2004. This is a novel I’d tried to write twice before, but abandoned both times partway through. The first time I abandoned the novel, it was because I was a young writer who lacked the discipline to see the story through. The second time, I had a sense of the plot, but hadn’t really nailed down the themes I wanted to explore. Between that and not being really certain what I audience I was writing for, the novel bogged itself down. In 2004, I had two young daughters who I wanted to excite about math and science. That and the 50,000-word goal of NaNoWriMo encouraged me to write The Solar Sea as an adventure story primarily for a young adult audience. I calculated my daily word goal and set myself a time to write each day after my daughters went to bed. Once I got into the routine, I found I could meet my writing goals pretty well each day. It taught me the value of writing each day at a set schedule. You can learn more about the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Dragon’s Fall:
Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires

I wrote my second NaNoWriMo novel in 2005. This was intended to be a prequel to my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order which had recently been published by LBF. In this case, I knew 50,000 words would only be a little more than half the novel. When I wrote The Solar Sea, I had a clear idea of the plot and I had been thinking about certain story elements for almost fifteen years before I started NaNoWriMo. When I wrote Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires, I had a one-page synopsis. So, my 50,000 words were much more stream-of-consciousness than The Solar Sea. At the end of the month, I really liked the beginning of what I wrote, but felt the stuff I wrote at the end of the month lacked focus. Still, this gave me a solid core that I could work on and develop. It took about two years, but the novel did take shape. I added a few chapters before the original opening and then tightened the latter sections and added a solid ending. This experience helped me see that I could be disciplined while writing by the seat of my pants, and I was ultimately happy with my tale of three vampires who come form a band of mercenaries. You can learn more about Dragon’s Fall at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

This year, NaNoWriMo occurred right as Kitt Peak National Observatory reopened from being shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo this year. That said, I was given the assignment of writing a novella in early September. At the time, I knew Kitt Peak would likely reopen around mid-October to early November, so I wanted to get as much of the novella written as possible before work resumed and I had to settle into a regular work routine at the observatory again. To accomplish the task, I used the skills I had gained in NaNoWriMo. In this case, I wrote a detailed outline and I set myself a clear word-count goal for each day. Even though I had an outline, my characters did their own thing at parts of the story and I did have to re-outline, but I’m used to this. I managed to finish my novella by the time I returned to work at Kitt Peak. I have since turned it in to the publisher who assigned me the project. Just this past week, the publisher sent me the contract for the story. I’ll share more details about this novella soon.

Although I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo this month, I did assign myself the project of writing my first comic book script. In honor of being NaNoWriMo, it’s an adaptation of one of the scenes from Dragon’s Fall. I’m currently working with an artist to bring “Guinevere and the Stranger” to life and hope we’ll have something to show off by spring 2021.

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.”

TG Geeks Astronomy Interview

Back on the Thanksgiving weekend, my friends Ben Ragunton and Keith Lane came up to visit me at Kitt Peak National Observatory. They are the hosts of the Two Gay Geeks Podcast. On the show, they discuss science fiction, conventions, science and anything else that may be of geeky interest. I gave them a tour of the observatory and then we found a quiet place to sit down and chat about astronomy and my science fiction. The astronomy interview is live this week and the science fiction interview should follow in a couple of weeks. You can listen and find more information at: https://www.tggeeks.com/blog/2020/02/03/tg-geeks-webcast-episode-259/

Much of the discussion centered around topics I’ve discussed here at the Web Journal. Of course, the advantage to a real time interview like this is that they were able to ask me questions as we chatted. I also had a chance to speak a little more about my background in astronomy and how I came to be at Kitt Peak, which included some discussion of my time working at the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

As it turns out, the weather turned rather unpleasant right before they came up to visit. When the weather turns rough, it can be challenging to reach the summit because of snow, ice and rock slides. In fact, Ben and Keith saw a rock slide on the way up. Over time, that particular slide worsened and they made it down just before the road was closed for the remainder of the weekend. They have a photo of rock slide they encountered on the interview page. The day after they left, a boulder fell on the road, higher up the mountain which reinforced the decision to keep the road closed. It took a while for the state to clear the road because most of their heavy equipment was up in Northern Arizona dealing with even fiercer traveling conditions.

In the interview, I mentioned that the website www.noao.edu might be going away soon. As it turns out, that URL still works as a portal to get to information about Kitt Peak and other telescopes that are part of NSF’s OIR Lab, as the organization I work for is now called. I did get word this past week that our websites will begin migrating to a new web portal soon, but discussion was still ongoing about what the new URL actually will be. If you would like to take a virtual tour of Kitt Peak and see some photos and learn some fun facts, you may do so at: https://www.noao.edu/outreach/kptour/.

That evening after speaking with Ben and Keith, I found a nice place to stay warm and check messages on my computer. Every Friday night, Madame Askew, a great steampunk costumer, entertainer, and host of the Tucson Steampunk Society book club, hosts a live online tea session. I was delighted to see that her guests for the evening were none other than Ben and Keith! I gather they interviewed Madam Askew for the show. This is all to say, don’t just listen to my interview, be sure to follow the show. The Two Gay Geeks have some great upcoming interviews, including Madame Askew and a repeat visit with me talking about my writing. They always have some great discussions of what’s going on in science fiction TV and movies, and if you follow them on Social Media, they may even give you a birthday shout out in an upcoming segment.

Weighing Planets

At this month’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the team developing the NEID spectrograph at Kitt Peak National Observatory announced the instrument’s first light and released a great, processed image of the first spectrum that illustrates much of what I’ve talked about when giving behind-scenes-glimpses of the work. This is a spectrum of 51 Pegasi, which happens to have been the first star discovered to have an exoplanet back in 1995.

Credit: Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson/Princeton University/Penn State/NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/KPNO/AURA

The rainbow in the image above shows light from the star 51 Pegasi spread out by the spectrograph. To the left, you see the spectrum magnified so you can see more details. In particular, you see dark lines bisecting the rainbow in different places. These lines are caused when elements in the star’s atmosphere absorbs a little bit of the light. The dots above the lines come from a “calibration” image. They serve as a road map to tell you where you are in the spectrum. When a planet pulls the star toward us, those dark lines move a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum (to the left in the image above). When the planet goes behind the star, those lines move a little toward the red end of the spectrum (to the right, in the image above).

What’s cool about this kind of measurement is that how far the planet moves those lines is directly related to how massive the planet is. If you measure the line movement precisely, you can measure how much the planet weighs. If you then use another telescope and take images of the star and watch for the planet to cross in front of the star, you can measure how much the planet makes the star’s light decrease. That tells you the diameter of the planet. With the diameter and the mass, you can calculate the density, which tells you whether you’re looking at a gas giant, a rocky world, a water world, or an ice giant world.

What’s more, I was on-hand when that first image was taken. We celebrated by pulling out a bottle of sparkling cider and toasting the instrument’s success. Afterwards, we got back to work characterizing and testing the instrument’s behavior. As you can tell from the image below, we have lots of people in the control room on these commissioning nights!

This past week has been especially fun as a science fiction writer and long time fan. We’ve been starting our nights by observing the star Tau Ceti, which appears in many science fiction novels, movies, and TV series. Among the notable novels where Tau Ceti appears are such classics as Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, Robert A. Heinlein’s Time for the Stars, and Samuel R. Delaney’s Empire Star. In Star Trek, Tau Ceti is known as the home of the doomed cargo ship, Kobayashi Maru. The system is the home of the planet Sea of the Morningstar in Bodacious Space Pirates, a wonderful anime series.

In fact, the star itself is very similar to the sun. It has a similar spectral type and a mass about 0.78 times the mass of the sun. It has four candidate planets in orbit and it’s a little less than 12 light years away, so it seems conceivable these are planet humans could eventually visit. I even gave it a cameo in the new, upcoming edition of my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro.

A Stormy Holiday

This year, I spent Thanksgiving on the job at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Because my daughter had the week off, we opted to have our family celebration at home on Monday before my work week began. Over the last dozen years, I’ve spent several Thanksgivings on the job. It’s not necessarily a bad way to spend the holiday. My co-workers and I get to share a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.

Of course we have diverse political views, so sometimes we find ourselves skirting those topics just like many families around the country. In many ways, those of us who work at the observatory are like a family, bound by a common passion for exploring and understanding the universe around us. Moving that mission forward is one of the things that makes working at the observatory on a holiday worthwhile.

Then again, working at a ground-based observatory, we’re subject to the wiles of the weather and this holiday weekend has proven to be a stormy one. Times like this do give us awesome sunsets like the one above, but not much time looking at the stars. We had rain, fog, and wind gusting upwards of 70 miles per hour. These are not conditions one should subject precision scientific instrumentation to. So, why do I have to hang around on nights like this?

First and foremost, there’s the chance the weather may improve enough for us to open. In fact, on my first two nights of this shift, even though the weather looked hopelessly bad, we did manage to get about two hours of data each night when the weather calmed and dried out briefly. Another reason I have to be available is that some of the instrumentation will be damaged if we lose power. On a remote mountaintop in the Arizona desert with 70 mile per hour winds and rain and snow, that’s a real possibility. If power goes out and doesn’t come back before battery backups drain, I may have to jump into action to start an emergency generator. What’s more, we have had circumstances where the weather has damaged buildings and I may need to take action to protect the telescopes or instrumentation.

Fortunately, our buildings and power systems are designed well enough, I don’t have to spend my entire night actually saving the telescope. So, while I’m waiting to see if my services are needed, I get a chance to do some proofreading. This weekend, I’m proofreading the novel Upstart Mystique by Don Braden, which my company Hadrosaur Productions will be publishing in early 2020. It’s a great science fiction novel about a group of colonists who are pulled off course and are forced to land on a planet they didn’t intend to settle before their ship is destroyed. The novel explores fascinating questions about human and machine intelligence.

I became a writer because I love to read. Hadrosaur Productions exists, in part, as a way to give back. The company allows me to seek out writers whose voices deserve to be heard and bring their books to readers. I know many people who read this blog are fans of my writing, but I encourage you to check out the works of the other people I publish as well. This holiday season, I’m especially thankful for writers like Greg Ballan, Joy V. Smith, and David B. Riley who have given me the privilege of editing their stories and I’m thankful to all the readers who are eager to find new, exciting fiction. As we enter this holiday season, please take a look at http://www.hadrosaur.com. I bet you’ll find a good book to share with the adventuresome readers in your life.

Stars, Galaxies, and Fiber Optics

The first time I remember learning about fiber optics was in a behind-the-scenes article published in 1980 or so about the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The article talked about how they got light to all the buttons on the bridge set and showed them illuminated with bundles of optical fiber. Nowadays, as I’ve mentioned in several earlier posts, I work with instruments that use optical fiber to carry light collected by each of the telescopes I work with to the instrumentation where its analyzed.

On the telescope side, those fibers are attached to an optical assembly that must be placed at just the right spot to catch focused light. If the star or galaxy is out of focus, not all the light goes down the optical fiber. We also have guider cameras that work to keep the object precisely aligned on the fiber so all the light gets to the spectrograph. It’s a lot of complex hardware to work right to precisely measure the the redshift of distant galaxies or look at a star and determine whether or not it has planets in orbit. This past week, we’ve been commissioning both the DESI spectrograph at the Mayall 4-meter and the NEID spectrograph at the WIYN 3.5-meter. One of the most important milestones is to get light from the object you want to measure to the spectrograph and see if you get the flux you expect. Here’s the NEID team at WIYN looking at early test results.

Yes, light leaves a star dozens of light years away, enters our telescope, goes down the optical fiber and is photographed with the spectroscope, then all that data can be viewed and analyzed on a laptop computer. When I filmed the trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt a couple of years ago, I was asked why we didn’t use a room full of fancy computers and monitors. We just had a couple of computers, one of which was a laptop. The reason is that I’ve seen a lot of control rooms where simple computers are the only ones present!

As you can imagine, it’s quite a relief to see all the work pay off in a spectrum that shows the flux level you expect. All of this is pretty exciting stuff and, as it turns out, my birthday fell during this past week’s tests. Seeing NEID as it nears readiness for scientific use is pretty exciting in its own right, but we had another surprise on the day of my birthday. Ethan Peck, who plays Spock on Star Trek Discovery, was on a road trip and decided to visit the observatory. A tour was arranged and he spent the beginning of the night at the WIYN telescope. For me, it was quite a thrill to have Spock, of all people, wish me a happy birthday! He brought a Polaroid camera with him and we snapped a photo of us standing by my control station. Here we are at WIYN. Ethan Peck is in the center (in white) and I’m to the left.

Meanwhile, across the mountain at the Mayall 4-meter, commissioning has continued on the DESI instrument. The instrument had its official “first light” a couple of weeks ago and a wonderful image was released that, I think, really illustrates the power of DESI.

Image credit: DESI Collaboration, Legacy Surveys; NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/NSF/AURA

Here you see an image of all 5000 DESI fibers superimposed on the sky. At the bottom of the fiber array is M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Below that is a view of the spectrum from just one of the 5000 fibers showing the light from that little piece of the galaxy. In it, you can see the lines labeled that denote the presence of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and even sulfur. Now remember that each fiber in that picture gives the same kind of data for the piece of sky its on. You can read the full press release about DESI’s first light at: https://nationalastro.org/news/desis-5000-eyes-open-as-kitt-peak-telescope-prepares-to-map-space-and-time/

All of the robotic positioners moving those fibers at the top of the Mayall telescope get hot and there’s a chiller system to keep them cool. This week, that chiller system will be automated, but last week, we had to monitor it by eye and it requires a person to turn the system on and off by hand. The person doing that remarked how spooky it is to be in the depths of the Mayall with all the lights out and remarked how she kept looking over her shoulder, wondering if someone was there. This is another aspect of my job that definitely helped to inspire The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel and see the trailer I mentioned earlier at http://www.davidleesummers/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

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.

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!