NEID – A New Way of Seeing Exoplanets

Last week, I talked a little about the work we’re doing refitting the Mayall 4-meter Telescope for the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument. However, it’s not the only construction going on at Kitt Peak. The WIYN 3.5-meter telescope, which I also work with, is getting a new spectrograph installed called NEID. Deploying NEID doesn’t require a full telescope refit like deploying DESI, but there’s still quite a bit of work happening in the building.

Most of the work right now is going into building a new bench spectrograph room. NEID is an acronym for “NN-explore Exoplanet Investigations with Dopler spectroscopy”. The word “neid” is also the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.” An appropriate choice, given Kitt Peak’s location on the Tohono O’Odham Nation in Southern Arizona. The goal of NEID is to provide the astronomical community with a state-of-the-art Doppler spectrograph to investigate exoplanets around nearby stars.

The way this will work is that an optical fiber assembly will be mounted to the telescope itself at the port in the photo to the right with the sign on it. That optical fiber will carry the light from the star to the new bench spectrograph downstairs where it will be spread out, like a rainbow. The reason for doing this is not to see a pretty rainbow, but to see dark lines interspersed through the rainbow. Those dark lines are like the star’s chemical fingerprint.

Now, here’s the fun part. When a planet moves around the star, it drags the star just a tiny amount toward the Earth which causes that spectral fingerprint to shift a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum. When the planet passes behind the star, it drags it away from the Earth and moves the spectral fingerprint toward the red end of the spectrum. Looking for this shift is the “Doppler” approach to finding planets that NEID will employ.

In addition to discovering new planets, NEID will be used to follow up observations by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and will help to determine masses and densities for planets TESS discovers. By the way, the NN-Explore that’s part of NEID’s acronym stands for NASA-NSF-EXoPLanet Observational REsearch. The current plan is to begin commissioning the instrument this fall and for regular observations to commence in 2019.

Being part of on-going research into planets around other stars is what inspired Dr. Steve Howell of NASA’s Ames Spaceflight Center and I to invite science fiction writers to imagine what these planets around other stars might be like. The results were our two anthologies, A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. You can learn more about the anthologies by clicking on their titles.

Once NEID goes online and starts making discoveries, Steve and I may have to “see” into the future and collect a third anthology. This time, including stories about planets discovered by a telescope on a mountaintop in Arizona’s Tohono O’Odham Nation.

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Kepler’s Cowboys Available for Pre-order

I’m pleased to announce that the latest anthology from Hadrosaur Productions, Kepler’s Cowboys is now available for pre-order. Ebook copies will be delivered on March 1. The plan is that we will ship the paperbacks by March 1 as well. Here are the details about the book.

keplers-cowboys-display NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered thousands of new planets.
Visiting, much less settling, those worlds will provide innumerable challenges.
The men and women who make the journey will be those who don’t fear the odds.
They’ll be Kepler’s Cowboys.

Saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. Meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. Fight for justice in a lawless frontier. Go on a quest for a few dollars more. David Lee Summers, author of the popular Clockwork Legion novels, and Steve B. Howell, head of the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center, have edited this exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology of fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, L.J. Bonham, and many more!

Here are the complete list of stories, poems, and authors you’ll find in the anthology:

  • Introduction by Steve B. Howell and David Lee Summers
  • Step Right Up by Louise Webster
  • Pele’s Gift by Gene Mederos
  • Over the Ridge by Terrie Leigh Relf
  • Chasing May by Anthony R. Cardno
  • Aperture Shudder by Jesse Bosh
  • Voyage to the Water World by Livia Finucci
  • The Silent Giants by Simon Bleaken
  • Calamari Rodeo by David Lee Summers
  • Tears for Terra by J.A. Campbell and Rebecca McFarland
  • Kismet Kate by Neal Wilgus
  • Carbon Copies by David L. Drake
  • Assembler by Doug Williams
  • Twin Suns of the Mushroom Kingdom by Jaleta Clegg
  • Point of View by Lauren McBride
  • A Very Public Hanging by L.J. Bonham
  • The Outlaw from Aran by Vaughn Wright
  • The Misery of Gold by Steve B. Howell
  • Backstabbers and Sidewinders by Patrick Thomas
  • Forsaken by the God-Star by Gary W. Davis
  • About the Authors

I’m really excited about this new collection. When we published A Kepler’s Dozen back in 2013, we were just beginning to comprehend the vast array of planets that exist outside our solar system. Four years later, we’ve unleashed a talented group of authors on this literal sandbox of alien worlds to see where they took us. This collection was a real delight to edit. We explore water worlds, terrestrial worlds, and gas giants. Our “cowboys” range from folks who would be at home in a western movie to machines that learn to think for themselves. We travel to alien worlds and even have an alien from a Kepler world travel to Earth in the 1800s.

You can pre-order ebook copies of Kepler’s Cowboys at Amazon and Smashwords.

You can pre-order the paperback of Kepler’s Cowboys at Hadrosaur Productions for a special discounted price of $12.95 until March 1.

Kepler’s Cowboys Cover Reveal

I have nearly finished selecting and editing stories and poems for Hadrosaur Productions’ new anthology, Kepler’s Cowboys. I hope to have the process wrapped up this week. In this anthology, the authors imagine the daring men, women, and even machines who will travel to the stars, explore, and settle planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. My co-editor on the project is Steve Howell, who is also project scientist for NASA’s K2 mission, which is the extended Kepler Space Telescope mission. Recently, artist Laura Givens turned in her cover for the book.

keplers-cowboys-display

Physicist Stephen Hawking has been in the news recently saying he believes humans only have about 1000 years left on Earth due to factors such as climate change, nuclear terrorism, and even the rise of artificial intelligence. Like Hawking, I believe humans need to move out into space in order to survive as a species. That said, there’s a part of me that worries his 1000-year estimate is optimistic.

Results from the Kepler Space Telescope suggest that almost every star we see has a planetary system around it. Earth-based telescopes and the recent K2 mission have been finding planets ever closer to Earth, many of which are in their stars’ habitable zones, meaning that liquid water can exist if all other conditions are right. This gives me hope that future generations can, indeed, push out into the stars and find new homes for humanity.

Kepler’s Cowboys follows our anthology A Kepler’s Dozen which presented tales of thirteen words discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. In the first anthology, we invited authors to participate and worked with them closely as they developed their stories. The new anthology has much more of a “wild west” feel, not only in the stories themselves, but in the sense that we opened it up to anyone who wanted to submit to tell whatever story they desired. We did this because there are, in fact, so many worlds out there that the number of possible futures is endless.

Even though we have allowed authors to submit whatever stories they wanted, Steve and I have still worked closely with the authors to make sure they present worlds that are within the realms of possibility as we know them. In fact, this has been part of the process I’ve enjoyed most. It’s been an aspect of editing that I missed in the last days before the Tales of the Talisman hiatus. I spent so much time reading and selecting stories, then creating issues of the magazine, that I never really had a chance to help authors with their story craft. I hope Kepler’s Cowboys captures some of the excitement that comes seeing what authors present when allowed to explore a theme and tell the stories they want, but also maintains a high level of quality and consistently good storytelling throughout.

I hope to announce a formal publication date for Kepler’s Cowboys soon, but we’re currently shooting for publication in February or March 2017. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out A Kepler’s Dozen.

In the Word Kitchen

I’ll be at LepreCon in Phoenix, Arizona from July 23 through 26. To learn more about this fun science fiction convention, visit the LepreCon website.

This week, several writing and editing projects I’ve been working on have taken major steps forward. I feel like a chef in a kitchen working on several dishes at once, doing my best to make sure they all get the proper amount of attention and go out to my guests in the right order. cook The photo is an old one of me in my chef’s coat. I don’t have pretensions of being a great chef—or at least many pretensions—though I am a pretty darn cook if I do say so myself. My wife was inspired to buy me the coat after watching cooking shows and realizing there must be a practical reason for the coats. Mine has saved my arms from grease splatters and saved a few shirts. It was well worth the investment.

Moving from slinging hash to slinging words, I’m currently working through the final copy edit of The Astronomer’s Crypt. This is my novel about creatures from the beginning of time, drug dealers, ghosts, and astronomers colliding during a cloudy night at an observatory. For those who want to follow the adventures of this novel, be sure to follow my horror fiction blog at http://dlsummers.wordpress.com. In addition to catching last minute grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, my copy editor has done a lot to flag places where the action can be tightened and my use of language can be more effective. It’s been a good experience.

While working through edits of my novel, I’m editing an exciting post-apocalyptic novel called Sector 12 by L.J. Bonham. I’ll be sure to share more information about the novel when it comes out. I think being edited helps me be a better editor. What’s more, editing another author’s work helps me be more receptive to the comments of my editors.

I’ve also started reading stories for the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys which collects stories about those people who will blaze trails to planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler Probe. I’m editing the anthology with Kepler’s Project Scientist, Dr. Steve Howell. So far, I’ve received some great stories, but there’s plenty of room for more submissions. If you’re interested in trying your hand at a submission, be sure to read the guidelines at http://www.hadrosaur.com/antho-gl.html.

As with any good chef, I have a secret recipe and even something a little extra—what a Cajun might call a lagniappe. I actually have two more projects in process. I’m just waiting to formalize a few more things, then I’ll be ready to unveil them as well. Stay tuned. Or, to use a variation of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s catchphrase: Good eating, good reading, good loving!

Kepler’s Cowboys

In March 2009, the Kepler space telescope was launched on a mission to monitor a section of our galaxy in order to see how many planets it could find. As the spacecraft has aged, it’s no longer able to point to one part of the sky. However, the science team was able to re-purpose the craft for a mission called K2, which is ongoing. A few weeks ago, it looked as though the craft’s life may have come to an end, but engineers were able to restore communication and the mission will continue. The graphic below is a year old, but it gives you a good idea of just how successful the mission has been so far.

Image credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel

Image credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel

The graphic shows eight small planets in the habitable zone of their stars, but that only tells part of the story. Moons of giant planets in the habitable zone could harbor life and there could be exotic life on water worlds or in the atmospheres of gas giant planets like Jupiter. Steve Howell, Project Scientist for the Kepler Mission notes there are literally hundreds of planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

In 2013, Steve and I collaborated to edit an anthology called A Kepler’s Dozen. Our goal was to have a group of science fiction writers and astronomers write stories set on planets discovered by Kepler to bring them to life for people. Three years later, the number of planets has literally exploded and we find ourselves looking at a proverbial wild west. So, we want to continue exploring what Kepler’s worlds might be like by telling stories of the rugged men and women who either might explore those worlds, or might come exploring Earth from those worlds. The anthology is tentatively titled Kepler’s Cowboys and you can click here for the detailed guidelines. Submissions will open on June 15, 2016 and we’ll remain open until we’ve filled the anthology.

We’re looking for stories about space cowboys—people like Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek, Spike Spiegel and Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop, or Malcolm Reynolds and Zoe Washburne from Firefly—those brave, independent people who make a living among the stars. In the first anthology, we worked with the authors before they wrote their stories, helping them pick the planets. However, the frontier is now so vast that we’re changing the approach. This time, we’re challenging the writers to tell a great story involving a distant world in our galaxy without worrying about which Kepler planet it might be. If we choose the story, we’ll note in the story introduction, which Kepler planets are like the one or ones in the story. Also, note, this anthology will also be open to poetry. We’re excited to see where this will lead us. Steve has prepared an information page to inspire you and help you build realistic worlds based on those known to exist.

A Kepler's Dozen

If you would like to get a good idea of the editors’ tastes, the first anthology is available at Hadrosaur Productions and Amazon. A Kepler’s Dozen is an anthology of action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Kepler Project Scientist Steve B. Howell and I edited the anthology and contributed stories. Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, thirteen exoplanet stories written by authors such as Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets.

Dangerous Aliens

This past week, I’ve been at Kitt Peak National Observatory, helping to obtain spectra of distant galaxies, while at the same time, waiting for my beta readers to get back to me with their comments about my novel, The Brazen Shark. Obtaining these spectra is a process that involves precisely positioning the telescope on a faint galaxy so light goes down a fiber optic bundle to a spectrograph two floors below. Once the light arrives, it’s separated by a grating and recorded on a camera. It’s a process that involves a lot of care and patience. What’s more, it can be especially tricky, when the wind is gusting around 45 miles per hour!

Children of the Old Stars

These kinds of long nights are good ones for contemplating what life might be out there looking back at us. Back in 2010, Stephen Hawking famously said in a series for the Discover Channel, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” It’s a pretty pessimistic view.

Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer for the SETI Institute rebutted that statement, saying, “This is an unwarranted fear. If their interest in our planet is for something valuable that our planet has to offer, there’s no particular reason to worry about them now. If they’re interested in resources, they have ways of finding rocky planets that don’t depend on whether we broadcast or not. They could have found us a billion years ago.” Shostak makes a good point, but well meaning people have caused disasters without trying.

The universe is so vast and there are so many stars out there, as I’m reminded during each of my working nights, that it’s almost inconceivable to think we’re the only intelligent life. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to find intelligent life taking many different forms ranging from frightening to benevolent and a whole range in between. In that sense, I suspect that both Hawking and Shostak are right. We’ll find life we’ll enjoy meeting and life we’ll regret meeting.

Also, there’s been a lot of talk in the news that life may be closer to us than we’ve thought. NASA scientists are talking about sending a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa where they believe conditions are right for simple life to exist. One thing I’ve long suspected is that if an alien race is advanced enough for long-distance space exploration, they can probably hide themselves from us rather easily, much as a hunter can hide behind a duck blind.

Heirs of the New Earth

I experiment with all of these ideas in my Old Star/New Earth science fiction novels. It’s perhaps not surprising the ideas for many of these came while working at Kitt Peak looking at the many wonders of the universe and discussing them with visiting astronomers.

In the novels, the Titans are benevolent aliens who live much closer than we might imagine. They hid for much of human history to avoid harming us. The Cluster is an ancient life form born of the oldest stars in our cosmic neighborhood. Saying much more will provide spoilers, but I will say contact with them doesn’t go so well. Other creatures such as the Rd’dyggians have their own agendas and just tend to ignore humans, unless they feel they need something.

Here’s hoping any encounters you have with aliens turn out to be pleasant ones!

A New Telescope

Over Memorial Day weekend, I attended the RTMC Astronomy Expo in Big Bear, California. Dr. Steve Howell, the project scientist for the Kepler space telescope gave the keynote address. Steve was also my co-editor on the science fiction anthology A Kepler’s Dozen. Steve and I were joined by contributor Anna Paradox for a panel about the ways science fiction and science push each other forward. We had a great time, but I think the real highlight of the weekend was when my daughter won a brand new telescope.

Verity-telescope

This week, my work schedule and clear skies finally coincided and I was able to help her set up the telescope. We took a look first at the moon and at Mars. It was terrific to see the wonder on her face when she first saw the craters on the moon. Mars is a challenging target even in bigger telescopes. We saw little more than a red disk. Still, I was impressed with how well she picked up the operation of the telescope and her eagerness to explore new things. I’ll be out with her again soon to give her a few more tips and tricks. After that, the universe will be hers to explore.

During his keynote speech, Steve shared some exciting news about the Kepler telescope. I’m sure many of you reading this know that Kepler lost two of its reaction wheels, ending its ability to point precisely. However, the Kepler team has figured out a way to use solar pressure to allow Kepler to point steadily in the plane of the ecliptic at a series of different targets as the telescope orbits the sun. Not only is this a cool use of the physics that might allow solar sails to one day work, it also means that Kepler’s mission will be extended into a new mission called K2. One of the neat things about the Kepler telescope is that the data is available to public. In fact, one place you can actually help look at Kepler data is the website planethunters.org, and yes, they will be looking at K2 data. The K2 mission will not only look for planets near the Earth, but at supernovae, variable stars, and active galaxies. I felt like my daughter wasn’t the only one who got a new telescope. We all did.

If you’d like to imagine other planets with me, I would recommend either the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen, or my novel of solar system exploration, The Solar Sea.