Contreras Wildfire and Kitt Peak

Over the years working at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve seen several fires from the domes at the summit. A few of these fires have even approached close enough to create nail-biting situations where we prepared to evacuate the site. However, a little over a week ago, a fire burned right up to our facility. As an operator on the Mayall 4-meter and WIYN 3.5-meter telescopes, I’m tasked with facility and personnel safety after hours. So, this means I was keeping a close eye on the fire up until the point we had to leave Kitt Peak.

While driving up to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory on Saturday night, June 11, I passed through the small town of Three Points, Arizona and noticed an orange glow on the ridge between Kitt Peak and Baboquivari Peak. I gritted my teeth, afraid I was seeing the beginnings of a fire. I hoped I was wrong. I’d hoped someone had installed a radio tower with an orange light between the town and the mountain, but soon after I started driving up the Kitt Peak road, my hopes were dashed. I soon saw a fire burning off in the distance. At that point, I wasn’t terribly worried, I’d seen fires in that part of the range before and the Tohono O’Odham fire department usually knocked them out within a couple of days. When I reached the summit, I checked in with the duty operators, let them know I’d arrived on site and confirmed they had seen the fire and that officials knew about it. Since it had been visible from a nearby town, I figured they did, but it’s always good to check. By all accounts, the fire started from a lightning strike earlier that evening.

Unfortunately, the southwest has been suffering a drought which has now lasted over 20 years and vegetation was extremely dry. However, the wind was calm and blowing away from the observatory, so when I started my shift on Sunday, June 12, we were able to work with the fire burning off in the distance and smoke blowing away from us. As it turns out, the WIYN telescope, where I was working, had a problem with its optical system. A vacuum system which keeps the heavy mirrors off the hard mounting points had failed, causing minor distortion. We were taking spectra, so this problem didn’t keep us from working, but it needed to be fixed, so on Monday, June 13, our optical engineer began the process of removing the secondary mirror from the telescope to investigate the problem. This is a big job and it couldn’t be completed in one day, so my primary job that night was to monitor the fire’s progress and make sure the wind didn’t shift to blow over the observatory. Here’s a look at the fire shortly after sunset.

View toward Baboquivari Peak on June 13, 2022

On Tuesday, while I slept, it became apparent that the fire was a big enough danger that steps should be taken to make the site as safe as possible. Engineers began shutting down less critical systems and making things as safe as possible. The wind shifted that afternoon and more smoke began coming toward the site. When many people imagine an observatory, they might imagine anywhere from one to six telescopes on a remote mountain summit. It may help to understand that Kitt Peak National Observatory is the world’s largest observatory campus with over twenty telescopes. There are, in fact at least six dormitory buildings along with several houses, kitchen facilities, a full maintenance yard including automotive shop, water treatment facility, backup generators and so forth. Like many college campuses, Kitt Peak is almost like a small town in its own right. So lots of people were at work all across the site through the day. That evening, I had a briefing from the Kitt Peak director. Because of the smoke, telescopes would be closed that night. Smoke can damage optics. As the night started, I went up to the Mayall telescope and took a photo from the visitor gallery. Only a little of the fire was visible from that vantage, looking like a string of lights on the mountain in the background, just to the right of the left-most dome. Still, this gives you an idea of how close the fire was getting.

Contreras Fire on the night of Tuesday, June 14

The wind picked up the night of June 14 and the fire seemed to pick up strength. As you can see in the first photo, there was a small ridge line between us and the fire. By the morning of June 15, the fire crested that ridge and I wondered how much longer we would remain on site. Here’s what it looked like on Wednesday morning.

Contreras Fire on the Morning of June 15.

I went to bed, knowing someone would wake me if we needed to evacuate. I woke up and attended two administrative meetings. From my room, I could already tell there was much more smoke in the air by Wednesday afternoon. As soon as the meetings were finished, I went to the WIYN telescope. From that vantage, I saw that the fire had progressed dramatically. A wall of smoke rose from just below the mountain summit and I could see flames just over a mile away. I went into the observatory and learned that a controlled shutdown of as many systems as possible was underway. I helped where I could. Among other things, I helped to carry one piece of instrumentation down to an engineer’s car so it could be transported off the mountain safely. Firefighters began arriving on the mountain. One of them warned us a plane was about to drop a load of fire retardant and we should move our vehicles so they would be damaged when that much water and retardant came down onto the mountain. We did as directed and soon afterward I was called into a meeting in the director’s office. While in that meeting, the incident commander gave us the order to evacuate. I went to my dorm room, packed up as much as I could and went to my car. I was off the mountain within about half an hour.

Because my home is in New Mexico, the observatory management put me up in a hotel room in Tucson that night. I hoped we would be evacuated, the firefighters would hold the line on the fire and I would return in a night or two. Still I had an uneasy feeling as I walked back to my hotel room after dinner that night. Here’s the view of the hotel. What looks like clouds low in the sky is smoke from the Contreras wildfire.

Smoke from the Contreras Wildfire, visible from Speedway Blvd in Tucson, Arizona

On Wednesday night, I watched the fire on the mountain webcams from my hotel room. Part of my job is accounting for the night’s use so it can be reported to the National Science Foundation. I filled out my reports. Thursday night was more of the same. On Friday morning, I filled out my report, but soon after, computers at the observatory went dark. A little while later, I learned that utility power had gone out on the mountain and we’d lost the internet connection. The fire had reached the summit.

I went home on Friday, but have continued to follow the news. The firefighters did a tremendous job. No scientific buildings were lost. As far as I’ve heard, only four support structures were consumed by the fire. It helped that almost all the buildings at Kitt Peak are constructed of concrete, steel, and brick. Since Saturday, the fire has been contained, but access to the Kitt Peak summit is still strictly regulated for safety. As soon as its safe, engineers and facility teams will begin the process of inspecting the site. They’ll see how much smoke and ash infiltrated the domes. They’ll see if there’s been heat damage. They’ll make sure we have reliable power and internet. Once that’s done, it’ll be time to see if the telescopes and instrumentation can be brought back on line and repair things as needed. It’ll be a process and it’ll take time. Still, I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to the firefighters who jumped in and kept the facility as safe as possible so that we actually can look forward to resuming operations. They did tremendous work and I look forward to resuming science at Kitt Peak in the not-too-distant future.

Cosmic Cartography

When plotting out my stories, I spend a lot of time looking at maps. This can be especially useful when writing historical fiction. Boundary lines change and even physical features can change because of human activity or natural phenomena such as earthquakes. Also, maps reveal the limitations of those who made them. Before the modern era, mapmakers didn’t have satellites to define coastlines or mountain ranges. People on the ground had to do their best to measure and calculate distances and translate those into maps.

While working on the DESI survey at Kitt Peak’s Mayall survey, I feel a little like one of those early cartographers. Of course, our job is to measure the distance to as many galaxies as we possibly can and make a map of the known universe. As it turns out, I’m not alone feeling this way. Graduate Student Claire Lamman at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was inspired to create an illustration in the form of an antique map called Cosmic Cartography. You can see the artwork in detail and read about it at a post Claire wrote for the DESI blog at https://www.desi.lbl.gov/2021/08/19/cosmic-cartography/

Recently, my wife celebrated her birthday. Like me, she enjoys old maps and she also enjoys challenging puzzles, so I gave her a 1000-piece puzzle of the Cosmic Cartography artwork.

Cosmic Cartography Puzzle

Not only am I reminded of cartographers from long ago who made maps, but I’m reminded of science fiction stories where starships on patrol had the job of making maps. Of course, such starships require a team of highly trained people and one of the great ways to build teamwork is to have a set of common logos. In science fiction, these often take the form of badges or patches on uniforms. In my world, these might be stickers on laptops, T-shirts or ball caps. With that in mind, the DESI team actually created a place where you can order these kinds of items. One of the items is a poster of Claire’s Cosmic Cartography artwork, which can be ordered as a jigsaw puzzle, which inspired the present for my wife. If you want to show your support for our project mapping the universe, you can find all the cool DESI Swag at the project’s Redbubble shop: https://www.redbubble.com/people/DESIsurvey/shop

As it turns out, the puzzle was a bit more of a challenge than some other similar puzzles my wife and I have done. Redbubble is a print on demand company and the puzzle was printed on somewhat thin cardboard and the jigsaw cuts didn’t have a lot of variation, so it was possible for pieces that didn’t belong together to attach better than they should. Still, my wife and I persevered and assembled the puzzle. It was fun to discuss the different elements of the artwork. Some notable elements are the Mayall telescope and dome and an area of the map itself representing the MzLS survey, which I helped with. There’s a circle showing the Sloan Digital Sky Survey map. I was at that telescope’s dedication ceremony in the 1990s. There’s even Baoban, the DESI coyote. The coyote gets his name from two sources. BAO stands for Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations, which is the science which allows us to accurately determine distances to galaxies and “Ban” which is the Tohono O’Odham word for coyote.

Working on the puzzle proved a good opportunity to both spend some time with my wife and to reflect on the talented and bright group of people I’m privileged to work with.

Space Pirates’ Legacy Complete

In May 2017, the rights to my “Old Star Saga” novels reverted to me. Upon getting the rights back, I decided to add a new first novel, revise and update the existing novels, and rebrand the series as “The Space Pirates’ Legacy.” After almost five years, this project is finally complete. Today, I’m proud to announce the release of book four, Heirs of the New Earth.

Heirs of the New Earth

The Earth has gone silent. John Mark Ellis and the crew of the Sanson are sent to investigate. When they arrive, they find vast alien machines known as Clusters in orbit. Fearing the worst, they land and discover that the once overcrowded, polluted Earth has become a paradise of sorts. The problem is over half the population is dead or missing and the planet’s leaders don’t seem to care. As Ellis works to unravel the mystery, sudden gravitational shifts from the galaxy’s center indicate something even worse is in the offing. Can Ellis save the galaxy from the heirs of the new Earth?

I wrote The Pirates of Sufiro in 1993 while living in Tucson, Arizona. Once I finished, I knew I wanted to write a sequel, and perhaps turn the series into a trilogy. The novel ends with John Mark Ellis, grandson of space pirate Ellison Firebrandt, wanting to pursue a mystery. An alien intelligence called the Cluster had invaded the galaxy. At the end of The Pirates of Sufiro, Ellis had no idea whether the Cluster was a ship or a life form in its own right. He knew the Cluster was dangerous and it destroyed starships, but he had no idea whether the danger was intentional or accidental. If the Cluster was a life form in its own right, could it understand that human ships were vessels with intelligent beings aboard? I knew Ellis would want to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Around the same time as I started thinking about the sequel, a team of observers were at the Mayall telescope using the Infrared Imager we had at the time to take images of the center of the galaxy. During that run, I watched as they captured the deepest image of the galactic core taken to that point. Since then, we’ve taken even deeper and more stunning images, but I was still mind-blown. I remember discussing what one would find at the center of the galaxy with the astronomers in the control room. We talked about the black hole in the center of the galaxy.

As we spoke, an image flashed to my mind. I imaged John Mark Ellis aboard an old-fashioned sailing ship at the center of the galaxy. I knew the rest of the series would tell of the story of how Ellis ended up on that sailing ship in that place. All I knew at the time was that somehow the Cluster was involved. Laura Givens’ cover art for the new edition, captures the image I’d conjured perfectly and I hope it makes you wonder how he got there. And this image isn’t a red herring. Not only does it reflect an image I had way back in 1993, it depicts an important scene from the heart of the novel.

The novel has just gone live in print and ebook formats and will start wending its way through the distribution chain soon. That said, you can pick up the print edition of the novel today at Amazon.com. The ebook is available in Kindle format at Amazon.com. It’s also available in a wide variety of additional formats at Smashwords.com. As always, you can find all the retailers I know who are carrying the book on the book’s page at my site: http://davidleesummers.com/heirs_new_earth.html

Confronting Change

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed working with the Hydra spectrograph on the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. It’s a piece of instrumentation that allows astronomers to observe up to 90 objects simultaneously during one telescope pointing. The WIYN telescope can see one square degree of the sky at a time. Hydra has a set of optical “buttons” which can be placed on a metal plate at the position where an object will be in the field of view. These buttons send data to the spectrograph two floors below via fiber optic lines. The device that places these buttons is a robot, which resembles the claw from crane machine. It picks up each button from a parked position and puts it where it belongs.

Sticker on Hydra’s side

This type of multi-object spectrograph is somewhat common now, but Hydra was one of the first of these types of spectrographs built in the early 1990s. In fact, the instrument is older than the WIYN telescope and I helped to commission the instrument in its first version at the Mayall 4-meter. Precision machines like the Hydra gripper suffer a lot of wear and tear in 30 years, so a little over a year ago, Hydra began an upgrade process. The engineers worked with Prod Design and Analysis in El Paso, Texas to upgrade the gripper with new technology. The folks at Prod were struck by how much the gripper resembled a crane machine’s claw and added the sticker you see in this first photo.

Hydra Control Rack

As you might imagine, I’ve become quite familiar with Hydra, working with it off and on for almost thirty years. However, making major changes to the instrument meant learning new procedures. The original Hydra gripper was an analog device that “knew” where buttons were by counting steps using a device called an encoder and then remembering those steps to go back and pick the button up again. If there was some electrical noise or a mechanical problem that caused the count to be less precise, it could miss picking up the button. The upgraded Hydra also uses encoder counts, but it has added new programmable logic controllers and video analysis. It goes to the button, takes a picture, analyzes that pictures and then adjusts it’s position, if needed, to get the button. All this new logic has meant that we have a new control cabinet in the telescope to house electronics. The hope is that this will make positioning more accurate. However, it has meant learning new ways to monitor the process of the gripper at work and recovering the gripper if problems occurred.

This past week was one of the first times I’ve had to use the upgraded Hydra without one of the engineers on hand in case problems occurred. I made sure to review the manual, because it had been several months since my introduction to the upgrades and I reviewed the troubleshooting procedures. The first night of observing started out quite smooth. We had four field setups without any problem whatsoever. Then on the fifth field configuration, a heart-stopping problem occurred. The Hydra control program crashed while the gripper was carrying a button to a new position. Of course, these buttons and their attached fibers are all very delicate and if Hydra forgets the button’s position, there’s a risk that the attached fibers could get tangled. This could prove to be a very expensive problem.

In the old days, a problem like this automatically meant going into the dome, which is a cold proposition on a winter night! Then with a long stick , carefully reaching into the instrument and releasing the button from the gripper jaws, which allow you to open the instrument. After that, you’d have to manually place this fragile, optically sensitive button and fiber back into its stow position. In short, it’s a delicate procedure to do when you’re cold and on a lift in a dark dome!

The new Hydra Handpaddle

Now we have a handpaddle, which lets us talk to the gripper directly. I went to the Troubleshooting guide, refreshed my memory and followed the instructions. For the most part they worked. I was able to control the gripper and set the button down in a controlled way. Unfortunately, we’re still working out some bugs, so I still had to open Hydra and check the button’s real position, but it was a much quicker, safer operation.

Confronting change in procedures that had grown familiar and routine was definitely scary and a little challenging. The things that helped me manage my discomfort were focusing on the familiar parts of the routine, reviewing the new procedures before starting work, and then when a problem did happen, I took a deep breath and used the instructions and my experience to solve the problem the best I could. This past week, the upgraded Hydra moved from a machine that presented me with a little anxiety to a machine I look forward to understanding better.

Breaking Records

It occurred to me it’s been a while since I’ve shared a behind-the-scenes look at my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Now that the DESI spectrograph is on the Mayall Telescope and the NEID spectrograph is on the WIYN Telescope, we’ve fallen into a fairly regular routine where, most nights, I check in with the observing team at 4pm via video chat, then go to the control room where I’ll eat dinner, open the telescope and start observing through the night. We wrap up as the sun starts lightening the sky in the morning. Targets for the night are predetermined before observing begins for the night. Once observing begins, much of my job is watching that the telescope doesn’t try to move to a position where it physically can’t and I’m the first line of defense in case the telescope or instrument malfunctions. I also watch the weather to make sure rain, wind, or snow don’t damage the telescope.

A slice through the 3D map of galaxies from the first few months of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI). The Earth is at the center, with the furthest galaxies plotted at distances of 10 billion light years. Each point represents one galaxy. This version of the DESI map shows a subset of 400,000 of the 35 million galaxies that will be in the final map. Image courtesy NOIRLab.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we expected that both the telescope operator and lead observer for the night would be working in the same room, possibly with some support scientists. As it turns out, I wrote a post recently describing how these plans had to change so we could operate safely in these times. As things currently stand, I work in a control room alone and coordinate with the rest of the team via video conference. You can read that post here: https://www.desi.lbl.gov/2021/11/17/social-distancing-while-mapping-the-universe/

All this steady plugging away, observing the sky night after night with DESI is paying off. It was just announced that after just seven months of operation, DESI has already surpassed 7.5 million galaxies mapped, which means it has already generated the largest 3D map of the universe to date. And we’ve only completed about 10 percent of the survey. When we’re done, we expect to have mapped over 35 million galaxies. The picture with the post is a slice of the map so far. The map is presented such that Earth is at the center. Each point on the map is a galaxy. I encourage you to take a look at the press release about the DESI results so far. It’s at: https://noirlab.edu/public/news/noirlab2203/

One of my favorite images at the press release is an interactive image where you can look the map above and compare it to all the data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in New Mexico. Sloan has been an on-going, ground-breaking project in its own right. I was fortunate enough to be on hand when that telescope was dedicated and the survey began. At the time, I worked as an engineer for a 1-meter telescope just a few yards away from the Sloan at Apache Point Observatory. I think it’s fair to say that DESI would not have been able to achieve what it has so far if Sloan hadn’t paved the way.

As it turns out, DESI’s value isn’t limited to creating a big map of the universe. Yes, that’s important and hopefully it’ll give astronomers clues about how the universe is expanding and how that may be related to this thing called dark energy. However, DESI is also creating a giant database of all these spectra that researchers will be able to use for years to come to understand more about the different types of galaxies and quasars we’re observing along the way.

On a good night up here, everything seems quiet and routine, which doesn’t give me a lot to share here, but it is producing lots of data and expanding our knowledge of the universe. Of course, routine nights also give me a chance to ponder the universe and continue to inspire me. As always, you can find links to my books and stories at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Remembering Anne Rice

Two of my treasured Anne Rice volumes

I was saddened over the weekend to hear about Anne Rice’s passing. Her writing entertained me, provided food for thought, and even inspired me. I’m afraid I never had the opportunity to meet her in person, but I was fortunate enough to find a signed copy of Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis at the Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans a few years ago and while I’ll admit it’s not my favorite entry in the Vampire Chronicles, it’s still a treasured part of my collection. In the photo with my signed copy is another treasured part of my book collection. It’s an early copy of Interview with the Vampire. I especially like the back cover where actors posed as Lestat, Louis, and Claudia.

I discovered Anne Rice’s writing in the early 1990s while working at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Those of us who worked nights at the telescope were often referred to as the vampires of the observatory because we generally weren’t seen when the sun was up. One of my fellow telescope operators was a fan of Anne Rice and encouraged me to give Interview with the Vampire a try. At the time, boxed sets were widely available with all the Vampire Chronicles in print at the time, which were Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, and Tale of the Body Thief. I breezed through all four novels in rapid succession. I especially enjoyed Rice’s take on the vampire as protagonist and even misunderstood hero. Soon after reading the books, I read an interview with Rice and learned that she wrote Interview with the Vampire as part of dealing with the grief of the loss of her daughter. Having lost my father at a young age, I’d long been oversensitive to the notion of my own mortality and I began to think about what I would do if I ever decided to create a vampire hero.

Those thoughts coalesced just a few short years later when I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico and a friend wondered what a vampire would make of “the City of Crosses.” This led me to my first vampire short story. After a few more, I felt I understood my characters well enough to write the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

Of course, even as I wrote, Rice continued to write. Her next Vampire Chronicle was Memnoch the Devil. One of the things that began to appeal to me about vampire stories was how you could view large swaths of history from a single character’s point of view. In the fifth vampire chronicle, not only did Rice look at Biblical history but considered theology through Lestat’s vantage point. I’ve never quite questioned my faith in the ways that Rice questioned her own, but I have had questions about my faith and the interplay of that faith with dimly viewed moments in history, such as Arthurian legend. Her open and frank approach to Memnoch the Devil would inspire me when I wrote Dragon’s Fall, the prequel to Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

I’ve continued to enjoy Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles and other novels. I wrote some reviews of her later novels, which I was pleased to see her share on social media. While I’m sorry I never had the opportunity to meet Anne Rice in person, I’m glad to have been able to share how her work had touched me. While I thought some of her novels were much stronger than others, all of her novels entertained me. I’ve been starting to think about a third Scarlet Order vampire novel. I’m sure Rice’s works will continue to speak to me as I think and plot and plan. Like her own hero, Lestat, I’m pretty sure Anne Rice will live forever.

2021 Holiday Season

As we kick off the 2021 holiday season, it strikes me that I’ve been back to my “new normal” work cycle for a little over a year now. Kitt Peak National Observatory had been closed from mid-March 2020 through the end of October 2020. During that time, I worked from home on upgrades to our operation manuals and served on a committee, which developed a plan for safely reopening the observatory. Since November 2020, I’ve been at work following that plan. When I’m at work, I’m alone in a control room interacting with others over video conferencing software.

The New Normal: Alone in the Console Room

We’ve also been minimally staffed for nighttime operations in the year since the telescopes have been back online. One member of our team found a new job and moved on while we were closed. Fortunately, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to find and hire a new first-rate operator. It’s been a challenge training a new person while maintaining physical distance, but we’ve managed. However, it has meant that I haven’t had a proper vacation in that time. I did take some vacation time to help move my daughter into her dorm room at the beginning of the semester, but I took advantage of a period when the telescopes were closed for maintenance.

Making Dinner in a Tiny Kitchen

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I decided rather than have our daughter travel home for the holiday, we would take the holiday to her. It was a nice time. We prepared a lot of the Thanksgiving meal in advance and finished it off in our daughter’s tiny dorm kitchen. The food itself proved very good and we had fun enjoying a card game with our daughter and one of her friends. While traveling, we see lots of front line workers, from the staff at our hotel, to gas station attendants, to grocery store clerks. It’s occurred to me that, like me, lots of these folks have also been going full-tilt for much of the last year and a half and I wonder how many have been able to take some time off. These people remind me to do my best to be kind and patient this holiday season.

While on the Thanksgiving trip, I found myself, as usual, being inundated by Black Friday ads. As a business owner, I considered whether or not to make some Black Friday specials available this year through hadrosaur.com. I ultimately decided not to make a big push. In part, I know there are plenty of people looking for your dollars at this time of year. Also, because my wife and I were both on the road, I knew we couldn’t fulfill orders right away. What’s more, I have several editing projects in process this holiday season and wanted to focus on getting them done right, but also wanted to leave some time for family at the end of the year. As I noted, it’s been a busy year and time has been at a premium. Still, I hope you’ll consider shopping at hadrosaur.com this holiday season. Even at regular price, indie books are inexpensive, yet unique gifts and when you buy them, you’re contributing to the royalty stream of some great authors, who will be encouraged to write more awesome things for you in the future. I appreciate and am thankful to all of you that have supported our publishing ventures in the last year and look forward to bringing you more great stuff in the weeks and months to come!

Summer Shutdown 2021

I returned to work on site at Kitt Peak National Observatory in November 2020. Social distancing regulations were put in place along with several other protocols to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection. In that time, we’ve been making great strides commissioning the DESI spectrograph and starting it’s five-year survey, which is intended to result in the most comprehensive 3D map of the universe yet made. The instrument is already getting results. For those who don’t recall earlier posts about DESI, it has 5000 optical fibers mounted at the prime focus of the Mayall 4-meter telescope. Each fiber can be positioned to align precisely with an object on the sky. The fibers run to a spectrograph where the light is analyzed and redshifts of distant objects such as galaxies and quasars can be measured. The following image shows how much sky DESI gets in one pointing. It shows the nearby Andromeda Galaxy taking up much of the field, but as an example, you see that one fiber has landed on a distant quasar. It’s spectrum is displayed in the inset box. Each of the pizza-slice segments represents the 500 fibers in one petal of the DESI instrument.

The disk of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), which spans more than 3 degrees across the sky, is targeted by a single DESI pointing, represented by the large circular overlay. The smaller circles within this overlay represent the regions accessible to each of the 5000 DESI robotic fiber positioners. In this sample, the 5000 spectra that were simultaneously collected by DESI include not only stars within the Andromeda Galaxy, but also distant galaxies and quasars. The example DESI spectrum that overlays this image is of a distant quasar that is 11 billion years old. Credit: DESI collaboration/DESI Legacy Imaging Surveys/LBNL/DOE & KPNO/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/unWISE

Summer in Arizona is monsoon season. In short, we get a lot of rain. Clear skies can be few and far between. As a result, this is the time of year engineers often choose to shut down the telescopes to do maintenance and make modifications. The DESI instrument has been performing well, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. The fibers in each of those pizza-slice shapes are aligned by a system called the “Command Action Network” or CAN-Bus for short. It was determined that the CAN-Bus system in DESI could be improved. To do this, each petal has to be removed from the Mayall’s prime focus and placed in an area where it can be worked on. We’re able to do this work this summer because of the availability of COVID vaccines. We do take care to practice social distancing where possible and, especially in the wake of the Delta variant’s rise, we’re staying masked throughout the day. This next photo shows DESI with four of the petals removed.

DESI opened up. The red device in the foreground is used to carefully extract the petals.

The trickiest part of this operation is that the DESI petals are all attached by several yards of fiber optic cable to the spectrographs two stories below. When we remove the petals, we don’t want to torque or strain those cables too much. The petals are lifted down and placed on the floor beside the telescope. Once there, they’re placed into clean tents where they’re worked on. Here we see two members of the DESI team diligently working on the CAN-Bus electronics behind the fiber positioners.

Working on the petals. The fiber optic cables come out of the tent, run along the top and then over the rail to the spectrographs below.

Finally when all the new electronics are installed, the petals have to be tested. Among other things, we need to make sure we didn’t break any of the fibers as we handled the petals. DESI is designed to be able to shine light from the spectrograph up through the fibers. We call these “back illuminators” and a camera mounted just below the telescope’s primary mirror can take an image of the back illuminated fibers to see what position they’re in. Here we see the petal out of the telescope with the back illuminators turned on.

DESI’S fibers glowing a friendly blue, telling us all is well after the work has been completed.

Once the upgrades are completed, the petals are reattached to the telescope. This is a big collaborative effort involving many people from around the country and around the world. Once it’s done, we should have made what was already a powerful machine designed to answer questions about dark energy into an even more powerful machine.

Breaking the Code Now Available

Yesterday was release day for my novella, Breaking the Code, published by NeoParadoxa Press, an imprint of eSpec Books. My copies have arrived as seen below, and I think they look wonderful. If you pre-ordered a copy, I hope it’s been seamlessly delivered to your e-reader or on its way by means of a reliable delivery service.

Breaking the Code print copies

As it turns out, I celebrated the release of the book while operating the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak on a blustery, windy night. The telescopes can only be used on sky when the wind is below 45 miles per hour. It was above that for at least some of the night. When it gets that windy, we hear the building rattle and thump in the wind. In fact, one of the scariest experiences I had working at the observatory was on a very windy morning. I was in the dome with the telescope doing maintenance and the wind was howling. I was tired after being up all night and the thumping and rumbling and wild howling made me think something was tromping over the land and if I didn’t finish my work fast, I would be at the mercy of a mountain spirit.

In fact, Kitt Peak National Observatory is on the land of the Tohono O’Odham and it’s believed powerful spirits and even gods inhabit the land. Working on this mountain for nearly 20 years, I’ve always respected those beliefs, but on that scary morning, the notion that spirits live on the mountain seemed much less abstract. I brought that sense of respect to my work on Breaking the Code.

Even though the observatory is in Southern Arizona, it’s high enough that it gets snow in the winter and just like that fierce wind storm, I’ve spent some fierce snowy nights on the mountain as well. Those conditions helped to influence the opening of my novella.

The novella is set in early 1942, right at the beginning of World War II in New Mexico as Marines are recruiting Navajo youth. As it turns out, I have a personal connection to that aspect of the novella as well. My parents were raised in New Mexico and my dad went to high school during the World War II years. When he graduated, he joined the Marine Corps. After the war, he went to work for the Santa Fe railroad and soon met my mom. I thought about his stories a lot while writing the novella. Although the characters in my novella experienced different specific events than my mom and dad, I tried to be true to the emotional experience they conveyed to me.

You can read the novella’s first chapter and learn where you can get a copy by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/Breaking-the-Code.html

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