Finder Scopes

One of the things I like about working at Kitt Peak National Observatory is that my job has a lot of variety. I contribute to important science projects and I help with engineering that helps to achieve the observatory’s science goals. Sometimes I act as something of a councilor, commiserating with observers during inclement weather. I even get to employ my writing skills when documenting tasks for our operations manuals.

This past week, one project I helped with was testing a new finder scope for the 4-meter telescope. Finder scopes don’t often get a lot of attention, but they serve an important function. Telescopes often give you such an enhanced view of the sky that it’s difficult to know exactly where you’re pointed. A finder scope is simply a smaller telescope mounted to the bigger telescope that lets you see a wide swath of the sky and confirm that you’re looking where you think you should be. Even my 90mm telescope has a finder scope on it. It’s the little tiny telescope piggybacked on the bigger telescope.

Here’s a view of the finder scope mounted to the top of the 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. Note that it’s basically just a camera lens directing light into a little digital camera.

This will prove vitally important when we start using the DESI spectrograph on the 4-meter. With that instrument, we’ll have fibers directing most of the light to spectrographs instead of a direct view of the sky. We will have a guide camera, but if, for some reason, the telescope pointing is off, it may be hard to find where we are. Because of that, it’s nice to have a widefield view of the sky. The images taken with the finder scope won’t be the ones you see in most magazines, but still, we played a little while testing and took a nice photo of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31 and it’s companion, M110.

We also took an image of the Pleiades, which is a nearby open cluster visible with the naked eye. These are young stars with nebulosity still around them. Even with our small telescope, it only took 30 seconds to see some of the nebular clouds.

Speaking of variety, another job I did this week was help an astronomer monitor a Jupiter-sized planet as it transited its star. This planet had a rotational period of only 1.6 days and we monitored it with the WIYN telescope at the same time the Kepler Space Telescope monitored it. Having two telescopes monitoring it at the same time allows for scientists to confirm and double check results. The system we were watching is very much like system I wrote about in the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen. You can learn more about the book and find places to order at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Keplers-Dozen.html. The book gives a unique look at the types of worlds discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. My co-editor on the project was Dr. Steve B. Howell, head of the Astronomy and Astrobiology Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

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Hunting Asteroids

I rang in the new year by helping Robert McMillan, Jim Scotti, and Melissa Brucker from the University of Arizona hunt for potentially hazardous asteroids in our solar system at the Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope. This is important work since asteroid impacts are one of the few completely predictable and preventable natural disasters. Here I am at the telescope console.

As it turns out, this observing run was something of a bittersweet milestone. Bob, Jim, and Melissa are the last scheduled visiting observers on the 4-meter. At this point, we have about five more weeks of observing with a scheduled imaging survey program and then the telescope shuts down so it can be refitted with an instrument called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, or DESI. DESI will measure the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. It will obtain optical spectra for tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a 3-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years.

So, what about the asteroids? Well, the good news is that there are smaller telescopes on Kitt Peak devoted to the search. The reason Bob, Jim, and Melissa use the 4-meter is that it allows them to look for more distant asteroids on nights when the small telescopes are not as effective. In this case, we were attempting our observations during the full moon. Because the moon is so bright, it’s hard to see faint, distant objects with small telescopes because you need to expose on the sky for a long time. The 4-meter can take shorter exposures and still detect these faint objects without having the skylight swamp the exposures. In the meantime, Bob, Jim, and Melissa have applied for time on other telescopes around the world to do the work they were doing on the Kitt Peak 4-meter.

Often times when I’m involved in these runs, I’m asked if I’ll let people know if something is going to fall on us. Well, if I know, I’ll tell. However, what we often do is identify small objects a long ways away. It’ll usually take more than the observations we get to determine the object’s orbit and find out whether or not it presents a serious hazard.

So what actually happens if we discover an asteroid that might hit the Earth? I found this NASA video that gives a nice explanation. I notice there is also an image credit from my friend Mike Weasner, a talented amateur astronomer who is also a science fiction fan.

If you want to get more of a sense of what life is like behind the scenes at an astronomical observatory, be sure to read my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel and get a sneak peak at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Astronomy and Wildlife

I suspect one of the last things people consider when they think about working at an observatory is encountering wildlife. However, it can be a surprisingly common part of the job. During my last shift at Kitt Peak, I had two very close encounters with wild animals, both at the room where I stay. The first happened in the afternoon when I was heading out to do my laundry. I looked over to my left and saw a bobcat walking away from me. It stopped and looked at me, then continued on its way. Unfortunately, it vanished before I could get a photo. Two days later in the morning, I heard a rustling by the garbage can near my dorm room. I turned and looked out the window and a very disgruntled bear walked by, just outside my room. I was able to get a photo of the bear just before he disappeared into the woods.

Wildlife encounters aren’t limited to the wilder areas away from the telescopes. Sometimes wildlife visits us in the control rooms. I’ve seen ringtail cats on three separate occasions in observatory control rooms. For those not familiar with ringtails, they’re not actually cats, but a member of the raccoon family that lives in the desert southwest. One time, we saw a ringtail in the control room of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. He peered out at us through a hole in the ceiling tiles. Another time, I was working at the 2.1-meter telescope when a ringtail jumped out of the ceiling, landed by a computer, growled at us, and then disappeared into a conduit. Another time I looked over and saw a ringtail in the control room of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, peering out from behind a garbage can. This was especially remarkable, since the console room for the 4-meter is some twelve stories above the ground. As the observer and I were trying to figure out what to do about the animal, it disappeared down a conduit never to be seen again.

Famous astronomers are not immune from wildlife encounters. I once heard a story that Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, had finished observing one night at Lowell Observatory and was walking to his room in the dark. He saw what he thought was a dog and held out his hand to pet it. The animal backed away, growling. The next morning, a caretaker spoke to Tombaugh and said he’d seen some strange tracks in the snow. It appeared that someone had approached a mountain lion very closely!

Encounters like this helped to inspire a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where the telescope operator, Mike, encounters a raccoon at the telescope. I won’t give more details than that to avoid spoilers for the scene, but it’s the kind of reality from my day-to-day life at the observatory that I’ve tried to inject into the novel. You can learn more about the novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. And remember, you can learn about all of my books and short stories by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

The Biggest Explosions of All

I’ve spent a lot of time in my astronomy career pointing telescopes at some of the biggest explosions of all—type 1a supernovae. This kind of supernova starts with a white dwarf star and another star orbiting each other. White dwarfs are very dense stars at the end of their lives. The only objects more dense are neutron stars and black holes. The white dwarf’s gravity draws material off the companion star until it reaches critical mass and the whole thing explodes. One such star that I had the chance to observe in detail in was Supernova 2011fe in the galaxy M101. Here’s an image from the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak, one of the telescopes I used to observe this object. The supernova is the bright blue star outshining everything else in the upper right-hand part of the image.

Image by T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), H. Schweiker & S. Pakzad NOAO/AURA/NSF

These cosmic explosions are pretty interesting in their own right. Our own star is expected to end its life as a white dwarf and these explosions give us a glimpse at the hearts of these stellar corpses. These explosions are also one of the ways heavy elements formed in the cores of stars get distributed out into the universe. Supernova 2011fe was, in fact, one of the closest Type 1a supernovae we’ve ever observed. We caught the explosion soon after it happened, watched the supernova brighten to maximum, then start to fade away.

Type 1a supernovae also have another useful property. Because white dwarfs have a fairly uniform mass, the brightness of the explosion is also uniform. So, if every Type 1a supernova observed were placed at the same distance away from you, they would all, more or less, be the same brightness. This means that by measuring the apparent brightness of the supernova, you can figure out how far away it is. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but there are ways to calibrate that information based on the how fast the explosion brightens and fades.

Back in the 1990s, an astronomer named Saul Perlmutter was granted target-of-opportunity time on Kitt Peak telescopes. In this case, it meant if a type 1a supernova went off, he could ask the telescope to point to it and take an image and calibration data. He and his colleagues hoped to get distances to as many galaxies as possible. I helped acquire some of that data which was combined with a lot of other data from a lot of telescopes to provide evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Perlmutter would go on to share a Nobel prize with Adam Riess and Brian P. Schmidt for this work.

This is one of those discoveries that shows some of the true fun of science. We learned that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but that raises an even bigger question. Why is it accelerating? Typically that’s attributed to something called “Dark Energy.” This attribution isn’t meant to be an answer in itself. It’s meant to be a placeholder. It’s “Dark” energy because we don’t know precisely what kind of energy it really is, or even if it’s energy at all! Later this year, a new instrument called DESI will be installed on the Mayall 4-meter which will endeavor to get answers to some of those questions. But like all good science, I expect a veritable explosion of new questions raised for every answer we’re able to get.

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, the day set aside for remembering those soldiers who gave their life for the country. I was surprised to learn that although Memorial Day has been recognized by the states for a long time, it only became an official Federal holiday during my lifetime. Memorial Day was one of the holidays created by the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which went into effect in 1971. That’s the point that the Memorial Day holiday started being celebrated on the last Monday in May.

The Memorial Day weekend has become traditionally associated with the beginning of the summer season in the United States. This year, my schedule at Kitt Peak worked out that I had to work the entire holiday weekend. Normally, working at the observatory over a holiday weekend isn’t much of a hardship, but this year, my shift started with wild 55 mile per hour winds, too high to open the telescope. Also, I’ve been suffering from a bout of sinus congestion. When we were able to open, the telescope where I was working developed some networking problems, which meant instead of working on cosmic mysteries, I was busy running between a couple of buildings (in the high wind) swapping out parts trying to solve more mundane computer mysteries. Fortunately the weather has improved as the weekend has progressed, and last night we were able to open the Mayall 4-meter to clear skies as shown in the photo.

Of course, I’m not the only person working this Memorial Day weekend. It’s all too easy to forget that many people have to work on weekends to do everything from keeping essential services running to keeping our favorite retail stores open so we can go shopping. In fact, if I weren’t working at the observatory this weekend, I’d likely be at a convention this weekend discussing my books and manning a booth. My next event will be Westercon 70 in Phoenix, Arizona, on the July 4 weekend.

Even though I’m not at a convention this weekend, I still had a unique opportunity to give a presentation about my writing work. I was interviewed by Emily Guerra of KRWG-FM, the NPR affiliate in Las Cruces, New Mexico for the PUENTES: Bridges to the Community segment of the station’s Fronteras news show. You can listen to the interview at their website: http://krwg.org/post/astronomy-steampunk-fiction. I was also pleased to see a review of my novel Owl Dance at the Steampunk Journal website: https://www.steampunkjournal.org/2017/05/24/owl-dance-david-lee-summers-review/#

One of the goals of my Clockwork Legion Steampunk series is to tell a good tale where the protagonists are actively doing their best to find peaceful solutions to the problems they encounter. In a way, I think that speaks to the spirit of a holiday like Memorial Day. After all, what better way to honor those who have fallen protecting us and our freedoms than working toward a world where no one else has to fall in battle.

Beautiful Sunsets

My work “day” at Kitt Peak National Observatory gets going in earnest when the sun sets. We have a saying at the observatory that beautiful sunsets mean poor observing. For better or worse, we’ve had some beautiful sunsets this past week.

There is some truth to the notion. Clouds can make dramatic sunsets, but they also obscure the view of even the most powerful optical telescopes. Red sunsets are often caused by dust or smoke in the air. Both are bad for observing in their own right. They make the sky hazy, but they can also settle out on telescope optics, which then becomes a problem when the weather gets even better. Unfortunately, big telescope optics are not easy to clean and the particulates can even damage them.

The wind that kicks up particulates or dries out the brush, giving us fire conditions, can also be a problem for observing. An unsettled atmosphere can make objects magnified with a telescope look fuzzy and distorted. It’s what we call bad “seeing.”

Nights with these kinds of poor, but not stormy conditions, can be the most difficult in my work life. We have to be ever vigilant to make sure the winds don’t get too high to safely operate the telescopes or the clouds don’t build up to ones that might drizzle. Even a little bit of water on telescope optics can ruin a telescope operator’s night. The wind can actually blow the telescopes around enough that we have a difficult time tracking targets precisely.

Our best nights are those when the sky is clear and calm at sunset. A few high clouds on the horizon aren’t ideal, but they’re not necessarily terrible. This was a sunset taken on a pretty good night.

This sunset’s pretty cool because I caught just a little of the “green flash” effect. I was just using the camera on my Kindle, so it doesn’t look as green as it did watching it, but you can see the after image of the sun just above the setting sun itself. That’s caused by atmospheric dispersion stretching the image of the sun like a prism or a rainbow. So you see the green/blue light of the sun set after the yellow light.

So, yeah, you can have pretty sunsets on good nights, too. They may just be a little less dramatic than the sunsets on the difficult nights.

If you want to see what happens when I imagine a truly dramatic night at an observatory, read my book The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about it here: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

Like telescope operators, vampires also come out when the sun sets. I imagine a vampire telescope operator in my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Read a sample chapter and learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.

Astronomers and Their Crypts

As we close out the year, I’m revisiting a couple of posts that I originally wrote for my Scarlet Order blog before I started posting exclusively here on the Web Journal. In the autumn of 2015, I wrote a post entitled “Haunted Observatories” and discussed how I got the inspiration for writing a ghost story set at an observatory.

As it turns out, I know of three observatories where astronomers are interred either at telescopes they helped to build or nearby. lowell-crypt One is Percival Lowell, whose mausoleum is right outside the 24-inch telescope on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. In the photo, you see my daughters and I standing beside his mausoleum. Another is James Lick, who funded the University of California’s Lick Observatory and is interred under the observatory’s 36-inch telescope. Also, John and Phoebe Brashear are interred under the Keeler Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh.

However, it’s not just bodies near telescopes that gave me the idea. My first job in astronomy was at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island. The building is an old-fashioned Gothic structure right next to the house once occupied by America’s first woman astronomer. My fellow research assistants and I would scare each other by telling stories of Maria’s ghost walking through the building. One night, one of my fellow research assistants even climbed on the roof while I was observing, made thumping noises, and sprayed Lysol in the dome to make me think I was smelling the perfume of Maria’s ghost. In a dark, cold dome in the middle of the night, it was pretty effective! This particular incident even inspired a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where one telescope operator scares another in a darkened hallway.

4-meter-alcove

Even today, when I walk around the main floor at the base of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, I sometimes feel like I’m being watched. I look up to an alcove at a darkened stair landing shown in the photo to the right, where I think I see someone out of the corner of my eye. It always proves to be empty, and my skeptical mind always knows its just my mind playing tricks on me but every now and then, I wonder if a ghostly presence haunts the dome.

One astronomer was killed at the Mayall 4-meter almost thirty years ago in a tragic accident. Several people have died over the years on the twisting mountain road to the observatory, and a construction worker died while excavating the tunnel for the McMath-Pierce Solar telescope just across the mountain from the Mayall. There certainly is a potential for ghosts at the observatory.

I’ve only discovered one observatory that describes itself as haunted and that’s Perkins Observatory which was built for Ohio Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college near Columbus. Ohio State University partnered with OWU to run the facility for a number of years, but finally terminated the relationship in 1998. The history page for the observatory tells us that the ghost of Hiram Perkins, the math and astronomy professor who founded the observatory, haunts the site out of frustration that he could never use the site his money funded.

I’m a skeptic who believes science helps us understand our amazing universe and our place within it. However, being a skeptic doesn’t mean I dismiss things like ghost stories out of hand. I believe the paranormal deserves serious investigation. What’s more, I love a good spooky story and believe they tell us something about ourselves.

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The Astronomer’s Crypt is now available as an ebook at the following retailers:

In honor of the season, I’m giving away a copy of The Astronomer’s Crypt for Kindle. Click the following link to see if you’re an instant winner: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/c1ab0e67aed8c0d9 .

The giveaway ends on January 6, 2017.