Stars Wobbling at the Speed of a Desert Tortoise

In recent posts about new observing projects at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve largely focused on the DESI spectrograph which aims to create a three-dimensional map of the northern sky. In fact, I’m in Denver, Colorado this weekend at MileHiCon and I’ll be giving a presentation on this very subject. However, this isn’t the only new instrument I’m helping to deploy and commission.

At the WIYN 3.5-meter we’re installing a spectrograph called NEID. Kitt Peak sits on the land of the Tohono O’Odham people in Southern Arizona. The acronym is derived from the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.” The actual acronym is: NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy. In other words, it’s an instrument that will be used to look for planets around other stars. Like the DESI spectrograph, fiber optics are mounted to the telescope and feed a spectrograph two floors below the telescope. Just over a week ago, I helped to run the fibers from the point the instrument will be mounted down to the spectrograph room. In the photo, you can see the fiber optic cable laid out like undulating waves at the base of the telescope. The instrument itself will be mounted at the round port that currently has the white, rectangular sign.

The way a spectrograph like NEID finds planets around other stars is by measuring how much they move toward and away from the Earth when they’re pulled by orbiting planets. You likely see spectra all the time. A rainbow is a spectrum of the sun. In a spectrum are characteristic lines caused by elements in the star’s atmosphere. When a planet tugs the star toward Earth, those lines move toward the blue end of the spectrum. When a planet tugs the star away, the lines move toward the red end. Of course, one of the hopes of exoplanet science is to detect Earth-like planets around other stars, or more specifically, Earth-sized planets in the zone around a star where water can be liquid. If you imagine watching our sun from another star, we’d see the Earth pull the sun toward or away from us at about 30 centimeters per second, or about the speed of a desert tortoise!

To see this small motion, you need to be able to see the spectra—the rainbow—at very high resolution. This is more than magnification. You need to see it at great detail. A spectrograph that can do that is often fairly big and it’s very difficult to mount it to the side of a moving telescope. This is why we use a fiber to capture the light and send it to a spectrograph in a different room. This allows the engineers to build the spectrograph as big as they need, but only requires them to mount the fiber to capture the light to the telescope.

Fiber optic cable is meant to be tough, but it can break, so it’s gratifying after we make the run to be able to shine light through the cable and see it at the other end, as we see in this post’s second photo!

Besides looking very specifically for Earth-like planets, the NEID spectrograph will be providing support for NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, mission, which is searching for exoplanets around the closest stars to Earth. Once TESS discovers a planet, we can observe it with NEID and get more precise mass and density information about the planet. Such measurements help us better understand the composition and formation of the planets around other stars. It’s a very exciting time at Kitt Peak as we deploy these spectrographs which will help us understand both planets in our galactic neighborhood and the overall structure of the universe.

MileHiCon 51

Next weekend, I’ll be a participating author at MileHiCon 51, which will be held at the Hyatt Regency Tech Center in Denver, Colorado. The guests of honor are authors Angela Roquet and Marie Brennan and artist Elizabeth Leggett. The toastmaster is author Carol Berg. You can get more details at the convention’s website: https://milehicon.org. A selection of my books will be available in the Vendor Hall at the table run by Who Else Books. My schedule is below.

Friday, October 18

9-10pm – Mesa Verde B – Group Reading and Discussion: After Dark. Authors James Van Pelt, J.T. Evans, Joseph Paul Haines, and Shannon Lawrence will join me to read selections from and discuss our horror fiction.

Saturday, October 19

10-11am – Mesa Verde C – Put a Gear On It. I will join Meghan Bethards, J. Campbell, Craig Griswold, and Rob Rice to discuss steampunk fiction.

Noon-1pm – Grand Mesa Ballroom – We Named the Dog Indiana. I join Carol Berg, J. Bigelow, V. Calisto, and James Van Pelt to discuss the whys and wherefores of naming characters.

1-2pm – Mesa Verde A – Year in Science. I’ll discuss the topic with J. Campbell, Dan Dvorkin, Courtney Willis, and Ka Chun Yu.

3-4pm – Wind River B – From Kitt Peak to the Universe. I’ll introduce the new DESI spectrograph that’s been installed at Kitt Peak National Observatory and how it will be used to make a three-dimensional map of the northern sky.

4-5pm – Grand Mesa Ballroom – Mass Autographing. I’ll be available during the mass autographing to sign any books you bring along.

Sunday, October 20

3-4pm – Wind River B – Patreon, Kofi, Drip, and other Alternate Funding Sources. I discuss the topic with R. Hayes, Patrick Hester, and Stant Litore.


If you’re in Denver, Colorado next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at MileHiCon!

October Adventures Continue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MileHiCon 50

Next weekend, I’ll be attending MileHiCon 50 in Denver, Colorado. For its golden anniversary, MileHiCon is inviting all of its guests of honor back. Among the guests of honor I’m looking forward to seeing are Mario Acevedo, Paolo Bacigalupi, Steven Brust, Liz Danforth, Chaz Kemp, Jane Lindskold, James Van Pelt, Robert E. Vardeman, Carrie Vaughn, and Connie Willis.

The convention will be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel – Tech Center in Denver on October 19, 20, and 21. You can get all the details about the convention at MileHiCon.org. Who Else Books, Massoglia Books, and Wolfsinger Publishing are all scheduled to be in the dealer’s room. Each one is likely to have a stock of books with my stories in them.

My schedule for MileHiCon is as follows:

Friday, October 19

  • 3-4pm – Wind River B – Group Reading and Discussion: Space Opera. With me are Carol Hightshoe, J Alan Erwine, and John Barnes. Alastair Mayer will be moderating.
  • 4-5pm – Mesa Verde A – Discovering New Worlds. Twenty years ago, we knew about one planetary system. Now we know about thousands of them. Author and astronomer David Lee Summers discusses how planets are discovered around other stars, what kinds of planets are being discovered, and the prospects for life on those planets.
  • 7-8pm – Mesa Verde C – On-Watch Parenting vs. On-Demand.  Technology is in our lives, including the kids. What tools and steps can parents use to keep their kids’ media consumption age-appropriate? On the panel with me are Karen Bjorn, Kim Klimek. Emily Mah will be the moderator.

Saturday, October 20

  • 1-2pm – Mesa Verde A – MileHiCon Poetry Reading. Stace Johnson, Carina Bissett, J.D. Harrison and I along with other poets attending the convention will read a selection of our poetry.
  • 4-5pm – Grand Mesa – Mass Autographing. All the authors at the convention will be on hand to autograph books.
  • 8-9pm – Bristlecone – Roundtable: 50 Years of Zombies. 
    From Night of the Living Dead to iZombie, let’s talk about a shambling half-century of fear, blood and braaiiiins. On the panel with me are Melissa Olsen and Travis Heerman, who will be moderating.

Sunday, October 21

  • Noon-1pm – Wind River A – Creatives Parenting: how as the creative process impacted your parenting?  How has your creative involvements impacted your parenting, for good or awkward? If you make your kids be creative, will that turn them off? If you don’t, will they be mad at you later? How much does the age of your kids have an impact on their interest? On the panel with me are Jennifer Campbell-Hicks, Fred Poutre, Vennessa Robertson. Ian Brazee-Cannon will be moderating.

MileHiCon 45

The last two weeks have been busy ones. At Kitt Peak National Observatory, I supported observations of the supernova remnant Cas A and I got to see the inner workings of the new KOSMOS spectrograph that will soon be in regular use at the 4-meter telescope. Once I returned to Las Cruces, I shipped out the summer issue of Tales of the Talisman magazine and then promptly dove into editing the autumn and winter issues. The copyediting for those two issues is now complete and I just sent the stories to the art director for illustration. I also gave my website a new, updated look. If haven’t already, go check it out at davidleesummers.com.

Cloud Lab Airship

One fun thing that happened this past week was that I spotted the Cloud Lab airship outside my back door. It’s part of a venture sponsored by BBC Two. The blimp is ferrying a team of British scientists across the United States from Orlando, Florida to Big Sur, California, studying insect life, bats, and the relationship between these ecosystems and the weather.

This upcoming week, I have four days at Kitt Peak followed by a trip to Denver, Colorado for MileHiCon 45. Unfortunately, my work schedule keeps me from getting there before Saturday, but I’m looking forward to seeing my friends in Denver. I had to miss last year’s MileHiCon altogether. You can get all the details about the convention at the MileHiCon Website. Without further ado, here’s my schedule for the convention:


Saturday, October 19

  • 1-2pm – Poetry Fantastique – Wind River A. This is MileHiCon’s annual poetry reading/slam/discussion. At the reading with me are Catherynne M. Valente, Stace Johnson, Gail Barton, Laura K. Deal, Robin M. Ambrozic, and perhaps even more!
  • 3-4pm – Discovering New Worlds – Wind River A. This is my presentation about how exoplanets are discovered and what we’re learning about them. Things are changing so quickly in this field, I learn new things every time I prepare and update this talk for a new audience.
  • 4-5pm – Eating Outside the Mainstream – Wind River A. This is a panel discussing the challenges of living with imposed dietary restrictions. My daughters have a number of food allergies and I’ll be happy to share the ways we’ve learned to cope and prosper. I look forward to getting some good tips from my fellow panelists, who include Dana Bell, Vivian Caethe, and Tim Simpson.


Sunday, October 20

  • 10-11am – Author Reading – Mesa Verde C. I’ll read an excerpt from my novella Revolution of Air and Rust which was just reviewed at SF Site last week. Also reading during that hour will be James Van Pelt.
  • 1-2pm – Was Frankenstein a Zombie? – Mesa Verda A. I’m moderating this panel that discusses what makes a zombie and what makes a zombie scary. On the panel with me are Paolo Bacigalupi, Selena Chambers, Stant Litore, and Stan Yan.

If you’re in Denver the weekend of October 19 and 20, I hope to see you at MileHiCon!