Gaslight Steampunk Expo

Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California. This is my first time attending this event. It will be held at the Town and Country Hotel in San Diego from October 5-7. The guests of honor include James P. Blaylock, often cited as one of the originators of steampunk, and Scott Bordeen, a maker who is credited as creating most of the commercially available versions of Disney’s famous Nautilus from the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You can get more information about the convention and a complete schedule at https://www.gaslightexpo.org/

My schedule at the convention is as follows.

Saturday, October 6

  • 3-4pm – Brittany Room – When Yesterday’s Science Becomes Tomorrow’s Fantasy. When you want to use retro technology, where are the boundary lines to make that technology believable in a modern context? On the panel with me are James Blaylock, Stephen Potts, and Vernor Vinge.

Sunday, October 7

  • 10-11am – Garden Salon One – The Rise of Science and Science Fiction in the Victorian Era. Mars is an ancient world filled with technology and robots. Venus is a primitive jungle world populated by dinosaurs. Where did these early science fiction tropes come from? How much was from science and how much was social science? A look at how science and science fiction developed together.
  • Noon-1pm – Vendor Hall – Autographing. I’ll be signing a selection of my books in the Vendor Hall. Of course, my policy with conventions is you can ask for signatures any time as long as you’re not interrupting a conversation. I don’t know whether books will be available with a vendor as of this writing, but I will have a selection with me and I invite you to ask me about my books at any time!
  • 2-3pm – Garden Salon Two – Victorian Computing: From the Babbage Engine to Automata. Vernor Vinge will explore Victorian era computers and what they could and couldn’t do and how they operated.

If your plans include a trip to San Diego next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Gaslight Expo. It promises to be a fun event.

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Sail 25

As we come to the end of summer, my convention season has shifted into full swing. This weekend finds me in Phoenix, Arizona at CoKoCon. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. It’s a great event. You can find more information about the convention at http://cokocon.org/. A week ago, I was at Bubonicon, celebrating its 50th anniversary and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. To get ready for the event, I decided to read some Golden Age SF. One of the stories I encountered was an early story about solar sailing called “Sail 25” by Jack Vance.

“Sail 25” was originally published in 1962 in Amazing Stories under the title “Gateway to Strangeness.” It was retitled for Vance’s collection Dust of Far Suns. I read it in the anthology The Seven Deadly Sins and Cardinal Virtues of Science Fiction edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. It tells the story of a group of cadets who must make a voyage on a solar sail space craft under the watchful eye of a notorious instructor named Henry Bolt. Those who survive Bolt’s training expeditions often go on to the top ranks of the space service.

This may sound as though Bolt is a rigorous taskmaster. In fact, he seems completely the opposite. He all but ignores the cadets while he sits in his cabin getting drunk on whiskey he smuggled aboard in a box labeled “radio parts.” He only appears to give them demerits for talking out of turn or showing signs of hopelessness. At one point in the journey, the mechanical computer—which felt like it would be more at home in a steampunk story than a science fiction tale—malfunctions and the cadets go sailing past Mars. Their only hope is to repair the computer before they also go past Jupiter. They do repair the computer, but make a mistake in the gear alignment, so they pass Jupiter after all. At this point, they have to keep their wits about them to find a way back home.

I’ve been interested in solar sails since I first heard about them in the 1980s and I’ve been following more recent solar sail projects such as the Planetary Society’s Lightsail 2 experiment with great interest. I was impressed to see how much this early story about solar sailing got right about the process. Admittedly, the sail proves very easy to deploy and it sometimes behaves a bit more like a sail on Earth than a thin sheet of reflective material under little gravitational influence. Still, Vance correctly talks about the sail as being pushed by light and correctly talks about the sheer size required for such a craft while at the same time requiring as small a mass as possible.

Aspects of the story remind me of my own novel, The Solar Sea. Vance talks about needing a crew who can perform calculations themselves without reliance on a computer. In fact, as I mentioned before, the “computer” is really more a mechanical adding machine than a modern electronic computer, but I like how the character of Henry Bolt insists the characters know how to fix it. Like The Solar Sea, Vance’s characters sail past Mars and Jupiter and attempt to use the gravity to help them navigate. In my book, I actually let my characters have a chance to explore. Both stories bring our characters to a point where things appear to be hopeless. I can’t say much more without risking minor spoilers. While the stories have similar elements, they’re also quite different. Vance’s story is about the journey and my story is more about the destinations. It’s just that our characters use similar modes of transportation and take a similar route.

If you want to voyage through the solar system with my characters, you can pick up a copy of The Solar Sea in print at:

You can pick up the ebook at:

Pretty Planets All in a Row

This is a great time to view planets in the night sky. Four of the five naked-eye planets are visible right now and the fifth will be reappearing around the middle of the month. The night starts with Venus in the west, setting about two hours after sunset. It’s followed by Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Around August 20, Mercury should be visible in the eastern sky just before sunrise. What’s more, Mars is near opposition, its closest approach to the Earth. In fact, it’s the closest Mars has been to the Earth since 2003 and it’ll be 17 years before Mars is this close again.

Although I operate two large telescopes for the National Observatory, I don’t get many opportunities to look at just anything I’d like. Most of the time, if I want to look at planets, I need to do so with my old reliable 8-inch Celestron telescope in my backyard. Fortunately, because this planetary show is happening in the summer and in the early evening, it’s actually pretty comfortable to sit outside with the telescope. Also, ever since my wife bought me an Orion Starshoot camera, I’m able to share my views with you.

It’s monsoon season here in New Mexico, so that often means clouds in the evening. I missed getting any views of Venus, but I did manage to get images of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is especially fun, because they are also the planets the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus visits in my novel The Solar Sea. Each of the planet pictures below is shown at the same scale, so you get a sense for how big they appear relative to each other in my telescope’s eyepiece.

Mars is the planet furthest in the east and the last of the three I observed. It was a little disappointing in that I didn’t see a lot of surface features. You can see one of the polar caps and some contrast between dark and light areas. Some of this is no doubt due to a planet-wide dust storm which has been engulfing the planet for the last month. I gather that dust storm is finally beginning to die down, so there’s a chance we’ll get better views later in the month while Mars is still close. In a way, this was kind of cool because one of the dangers the crew of the Aristarchus faced in The Solar Sea was a dust storm, albeit a somewhat more localized one than the planet is currently experiencing.

Jupiter was quite lovely and helped to demonstrate that the seeing—the atmospheric stability—wasn’t the reason Mars was somewhat washed out. The very best view of Jupiter I’ve had is through the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. It’s one of the few telescopes of that class with an eyepiece adapter, so I have had occasion to actually go out in the dome and look at objects through the telescope. This is probably about the clearest I’ve seen the bands of Jupiter through my backyard telescope and I was pleased to see the great red spot. In The Solar Sea, the crew of the Aristarchus makes a point of flying over the red spot. It’s the largest, longest lasting storm in the solar system. If I went to Jupiter, I’d have to get close, though I wouldn’t want to be in it!

Of course, the real star of the show, as it often is, was Saturn. This is by far the best photograph I’ve ever taken of Saturn. I was pleased to capture Cassini’s Division in the rings along with a band on the planet’s surface. The only time I’ve ever seen Saturn better was when I had the opportunity to look through the 24-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory a couple of years ago. As it turns out, Saturn is the object of the quest in The Solar Sea. Thomas Quinn, who designs and builds the Aristarchus, discovers powerful particles near Saturn that appear to be able to travel through time. It turns out there’s more to these particles than meets the eye!

The Solar Sea is on my mind not just because of these pretty planets all in a row. It turns out that as of last week, copies are now for sale at the Kitt Peak National Observatory visitor center, alongside the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. Be sure to look for a copy next time you visit. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a visit to Kitt Peak to pick up a copy of The Solar Sea, you can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Dying to Get to Mars

In the novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter escapes from Apaches in the Arizona desert by going into a mysterious cave where he succumbs to mysterious gasses. Soon afterward, his spirit is transported to Mars where he becomes substantial again and makes a new life as a warlord of Mars. It seems a very odd way of getting to Mars and one that’s probably doomed to failure if you or I were to try it. However, John Carter was not the first literary hero to get to Mars via this unusual method of transportation.

A Princess of Mars was first published in 1917. In 1889, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion published the novel Uranie (or Urania as it’s known in English). In mythology, Urania is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. She’s also the great granddaughter of Uranus, for whom the planet is named. Urania is the muse of astronomy. Camille Flammarion was, for all intents and purposes, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Victorian age. His popular works on astronomy inspired a generation around the world. In many ways, he was a true life astronomical muse.

The novel is told in three parts. In the first part, Urania takes Camille Flammarion on a journey to the stars. She shows him worlds orbiting other stars and the life inhabiting those worlds. He learns that life can come in many different forms. So far, this makes Uranie the oldest novel I know that imagines life on planets outside our solar system. In the second part of the novel, we meet one of Flammarion’s colleagues, George Spero, who is courting a woman from Norway named Icléa. George and Icléa have a long, intense courtship that includes discussions of the nature of thermodynamics, orbital mechanics, and the nature of death. Eventually they travel to Norway to get married. Before the ceremony, George decides to take a balloon to make measurements of the Aurora Borealis. At the last minute Icléa jumps in the balloon with him and off they go.

Alas, part way into the journey, the gas valve breaks and the balloon begins a rapid descent. In order to save George, Icléa jumps from the balloon to the frigid waters of the lake below. The balloon begins to rise and George is saved, but he’s unable to go on without Icléa and jumps out. He misses the lake and hits the ground and the two join each other in death. Sad for the loss of his friend, Flammarion goes to a séance. There he learns that George and Icléa have taken on new forms on the planet Mars. What’s more George is now a woman and Icléa is now a man! This brings us to the end of part two.

Part Three is a combination of essays about telepathy and other unexplained phenomena, how they could be, and a ghostly visit to Flammarion from George where we learn more about the couple’s new life on Mars. I won’t say much more, I’ve given spoilers enough. Still, I found it interesting that death on Earth and rebirth on Mars was not unique to Burroughs in early science fiction. I have no idea whether or not Burroughs was directly influenced by Flammarion, but Burroughs would have been a teenager when Uranie was released in the United States and Flammarion’s work was widely read. It was, after all, Camille Flammarion who inspired Percival Lowell to build an observatory in Arizona to study the planet Mars.

If you’d like to read this interesting, science fiction novel, it’s in the public domain in the United States and available to download from Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41941.

Mars, Up Close and Personal

On May 30, 2016, the planet Mars reached the point in its orbit where it’s closest to Earth. The two planets were 46.8 million miles apart. In about a week, Mars will grow noticeably fainter as the planets move away from each other. Earlier this week, on the night of June 6, I took advantage of the close approach to get a nice image of the red planet.

Mars - June 6, 2016

Between work, travel, and weather, this was my first opportunity to take advantage of the close approach with my 8-inch Celestron Telescope. The new image is noticeably improved over my February 11 photo taken with the same telescope and camera and displayed at the same scale:

Mars-160211-Color

This really illustrates why close approaches have been so important to understanding Mars. The improved resolution is breathtaking. During the close approach of Mars in the fall of 1877, Asaph Hall at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the red planet’s two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. That same close approach unfortunately led Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli to declare the existence of channels or even canals on Mars. American scholar Percival Lowell took the idea and ran with it, making a career of publishing studies of Martian canals and using them as proof of Martian life.

Lowell’s enthusiasm prompted biologist Alfred Russel Wallace to seriously consider the conditions necessary for extraterrestrial life. In the process, he made some of the first calculations about the temperature on Mars based on its distance from the sun. He also calculated how big the canals would have to be so they could be seen from Earth. The canals would literally have to be miles wide, delivering water from tiny polar caps. As Wallace said, “Any attempt to make that scanty surplus, by means of overflowing canals, travel across the equator in to the opposite hemisphere, through such a terrible desert region and exposed to such a cloudless sky as Mr. Lowell describes, would be the work of a body of madmen rather than intelligent beings.”

What I like about this story is that although Lowell misinterpreted what he saw, his observations prompted critical thinking and led to a whole body of research. The modern Search for Extra-Terrestrial Inteligence, most certainly owes its existence to Alfred Russel Wallace pondering whether or not Martians really could build canals as Lowell claimed.

Whether there are people on Mars or not, the planet captivates me and many other people. I’m not sure whether it’s the desert vistas, the prospect of a canyon that dwarfs the Grand Canyon, or a mountain that dwarfs Everest. Perhaps its as simple as knowing that when Mars is at closest approach, it comes tantalizingly close to revealing its secrets even in an 8-inch telescope as in the photo above.

The Solar Sea

I’ve been compelled to write about Mars on several occasions. The planet plays a prominent role in my novel The Solar Sea which you can read about at TheSolarSea.com. While there, you can check out some cool illustrations by Laura Givens and download a free reading guide. Also, my story “Arachne’s Stepchildren” appears in The Martian Anthology edited by David B. Riley. You can check it out at Amazon.com.

Although Percival Lowell was wrong about Martian canals, his publications on the subject and the discussions that ensued helped to assure that Mars would be a real place in people’s imaginations in the years that followed. In much the same way, Kepler Project Scientist Steve Howell and I want to start viewing the planets discovered by the Kepler Space Probe with a similar sense of place. Because of that, we’ll start reading for the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys on Wednesday, June 15. Interested writers should click here for the guidelines.

If you missed Mars’s close approach this time around, despair not! Mars will make an even closer approach around the end of July 2018. At that point it will only be 35.8 million miles from Earth and appear about a 30% larger than it did this year. I hope to be out with my telescope and camera to try to get another image of our fascinating planetary neighbor.

Elusive Mars and Majestic Jupiter

The weather in the Southwest has dried out and warmed up, which inspired another session in the back yard with my Celestron 8-inch telescope and Orion StarShoot USB Camera. My primary hope was to capture Mars. Now Mars is a notoriously difficult target for a small telescope. It’s an orb in slightly varying shades of red. To see any detail at all is a challenge. In the book Cosmos, Carl Sagan described Percival Lowell’s challenges observing Mars:

    Observations of this sort are not easy. You put in long hours at the telescope in the chill of the early morning. Often the seeing is poor and the image of Mars blurs and distorts. Then you must ignore what you have seen. Occasionally the image steadies and the features of the planet flash out momentarily, marvelously.

I couldn’t say it better myself. I watched the planet for several minutes. Every now and then I’d see the polar cap appear and occasionally a dark feature would join it. I put in my video camera and most frames came out as red blurs, though a few showed a hint of structure. I used the RegiStax 6 package to combine the images and work to bring out the structures and was able to get this image.

Mars-160211-Color

When I first saw the images, I thought the telescope was slightly out of focus because Mars was slightly oblong. However, checking Sky and Telescope magazine, it turns out that the relative positions the planets mean Mars is in a slightly gibbous phase right now. We actually can see the terminator from Martian day to night. Perhaps it’s because this little desert world is at once similar to ours but challenging to really resolve well that we find it so fascinating.

Looking at it through the telescope and even on the video screen, I thought I could convince myself that I saw linear structures like canals. Even without canals, a visit would be fascinating and I’ve imagined going there in my fiction. In my story “Arachne’s Stepchildren” which appears in The Martian Anthology, I imagine miners on Mars actually finding life deep underground. In my novel The Solar Sea, the solar sail Aristarchus stops by the planet and a landing party visits the summit of Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system. In the novel, the astronauts continue on to Jupiter and so did I. Here are images of Jupiter without a filter and through a blue filter.

Jupiter-160211-Comparison

The exciting part of this image is that you can see the Great Red Spot, the solar system’s longest lasting storm, in the upper brown belt near the planet’s center. It’s a bit faint, elusive like Mars, but it’s a little more apparent in the blue filter.

Even without a telescope, it’s worth stepping out the door if you happen to be up a little before sunrise. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all visible without a telescope. In fact, with a sufficiently large telescope, you would find Pluto not far from Mercury and Venus right now. I enjoy going out and looking even though my “day” job involves long hours with the telescope. It helps to make a personal connection to those objects in the sky which inspire us and it gives me the opportunity to share those wonders with my family.

Exploring the Solar System from My Back Yard

When I graduated from high school, my mom bought me an 8-inch Celestron Telescope. To this day, I treasure that telescope and the journeys it’s allowed me to take. I’ve looked at planets, galaxies, and star clusters with the telescope. In my early years of college, when I spent summers working at Cal State San Bernardino, Professor Paul Heckert loaned me a photometer and I even took variable star data with the telescope that we published. However, one thing I’ve always wanted was have a camera to take photos and share. My wife remedied that this past Christmas when she bought me a little Orion StarShoot USB Eyepiece Camera. Unfortunately, the weather has been sufficiently poor since Christmas, I didn’t get a chance to try it out until a little over a week ago. Here I am in my back yard in New Mexico, pointing the telescope at Jupiter.

Backyard_Observing

For my first time out, I was able to get images of both Jupiter and Saturn. The camera works by taking video. Afterwards, the individual video frames may be combined using stacking software. My telescope doesn’t track perfectly. Also, the atmosphere shimmers and dances, especially when you point down near the horizon where Saturn was. This shimmering and dancing is called seeing and the stacking software attempts to take out the effects of poor seeing. My first target was Jupiter. On the left, you see Jupiter. The little bump on the left of the image is its moon Ganymede. The planet has a distinctly reddish cast because I used a red filter to try to cut down the brightness and help me see features on the planet better. The image on the right is saved as grayscale with the contrast turned up. I was amazed at how much detail I could see in the cloud features.

Two Jupiters

Next, I turned the telescope toward the horizon to catch Saturn. The ringed planet is in a great position right now with it’s rings tilted so they’re easily visible. The image below is at the same scale as the Jupiter images. As you can see, Saturn appears much smaller both because it is smaller than Jupiter and also because it’s farther away. I took a longer video sequence. Most of the images looked terrible and I didn’t think I got a very good image, but when I stacked them, I was amazed at how much detail I could see. I can see the shadow of the planet itself on the rings. I can see the Cassini division in the rings and even a feature in the clouds. Given the poor conditions, I’m very pleased with this image.

Saturn

Sitting behind the telescope is perhaps the closest I’ll get to exploring the solar system, but I hope we’ll send people to take a closer look. I imagined such a voyage in my novel The Solar Sea. Sitting behind the telescope, I find myself thinking about flying through Jupiter’s clouds or standing on the surface of Titan and seeing Saturn’s rings looming large above me.

If I can manage some clear skies, I hope to try Mars next. I’ve always wanted to climb Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system and admire the view from the rim of Valles Marineres, the solar system’s longest canyon. If I get some good Mars pictures, I’ll be sure to share them here.