Exploring Galaxies

This past week, I’ve been working at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s WIYN telescope using one of the workhorse instruments called HexPak to help astronomers better understand how galaxies work. At left is a photo I took of the galaxy M51 with the New Mexico State University 1-meter telescope. While we can learn a lot studying photos like this, wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn more, and understand what chemical elements make up the different parts of a galaxy? The instrument HexPak is designed to do just that.

One of the best tools we have for understanding the chemistry of objects in space is spectroscopy. Back in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that if you looked at heated elements through a spectroscope, you would see a characteristic set of lines in the rainbow-like spectrum. These lines are like a fingerprint for each element. It turns out that stars are really good at heating up elements! Below is a photo of the WIYN telescope with HexPak mounted.

HexPak is the white hose-like thing on the right plugged into side of the telescope. Inside that hose-like unit is a bundle of optical fibers arrayed in a hexagonal pattern. They look like this:

We can then align those fibers with a galaxy like M51 above, so different parts of the galaxy line up with different fibers. When that’s done, it looks something like this:

Now, I should note, this image was created just for illustration purposes. I haven’t tried to match the scale or alignment of my NMSU 1-meter image of M51 with the HexPak fiber array. However, you will see that different parts of the galaxy now line up with different fibers. That light is now sent downstairs to a bench spectrograph where it’s broken into its component parts. Here’s WIYN’s bench spectrograph. You can even see the rainbow like spectra on the grating at left we use to analyze the light from galaxies.

Light from each of the fibers in the array becomes a single spectrum and the image of that spectrum is recorded on a camera, shown at the right of the image above. Each one of those spectra will tell us about the elements present in each of the parts of the galaxy as lined up above. So, for example, you can figure out if the spiral arms have different amounts of a certain element than the bulge in the center. You can see what’s going on in the space between the galactic arms. If you look closely at my photo of M51, you’ll see it has bright regions that line up with parts of the spiral arm. An instrument like HexPak can help an astronomer learn if those parts of the spiral arm are different from other parts of the spiral arm, and maybe see what those regions are made of.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, this work does inspire my writing. Sometimes I look at a galaxy like one we study with HexPak and think what it would be like travel between the different parts of a galaxy. M51 has a lot in common with our own galaxy. What’s it like in the arms? What’s it like between the arms? What’s it like the galaxy’s center? What’s more, working with astronomers in the control room sometimes does feel like being a crewmember on a spaceship exploring uncharted reaches. All of these elements have influenced science fiction stories like Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to release the former and I’m rewriting the latter with help from supporters at my Patreon site.

You can get involved in the fun by becoming a patron. My patrons are the first people who get to read new stories in my science fiction universe and they get to download complete books when they’re available. What’s more, one of my goals at my Patreon site is to make this blog ad free. If you like behind-the-scenes looks into astronomy like this one, but don’t like the ads at the blog, please consider supporting my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Colonel Albert Fountain Meets Carmilla

In the cemetery behind my house is a gravestone with no body underneath. I see it almost every day I’m home when I take my daily walk through the neighborhood. Albert J. Fountain was the fourteenth lieutenant governor of Texas, serving during the reconstruction years of 1871-1873. After he finished his term, he moved to Mesilla, New Mexico. He’s probably most famous as Billy the Kid’s defense attorney in 1881. His interest in the infamous Lincoln County War and other cattle disputes continued. In 1896, Fountain was on his way home from collecting affidavits about people involved with cattle rustling. He was traveling with his eight-year-old son Henry. Fountain was 57. The two disappeared in White Sands. All that was found was a buckboard and a pool of blood.

It’s long been suspected that Fountain and his son fell prey to those men he investigated. I once read that Fountain’s wife encouraged him to take his young son, feeling that no one would be monstrous enough to harm a small child. Something about that always felt just a little naive given the reputations of cattle rustlers. I also thought it seemed naive of Fountain to agree. He was certainly not inexperienced and had lived through difficult times.

When David Boop asked me to submit a story for the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone, my thoughts went immediately to the Albert Fountain disappearance. What fantastical explanations could I come up with for the event? What if Fountain took precautions to assure he would be safe? I also thought about Albert Fountain as an older father. In the 1800s, being almost 50 years older than his son, did he worry about the possibilities of watching his son grow up? Those questions along with the pool of blood led me to thoughts of vampires.

As it turns out, the novel Dracula would not be published until a year after Fountain disappeared. That’s when it occurred to me that the novella “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu had been published in 1871, and collected into the book In a Glass Darkly with other stories in 1872. It’s not clear how widely the book was distributed in America, but it’s certainly possible it was known.

I used “Carmilla” as a way to introduce my protagonists to the concept of the vampire while they’re attempting to solve the disappearance. One of the things that appeals to me about Carmilla is the way the vampire is almost phantom like, stalking her victim in dreams. The novella also raises interesting possibilities about child vampires long before Claudia appeared in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire.

So, how exactly do vampires relate to the disappearance of Albert and Henry Fountain? I’ve dropped several big hints in the description above, but the best way to know is to pick up a copy of Straight Outta Tombstone to find out.

Also, one week from today on October 14, I’ll be at the New Mexico State University Bookstore at 1400 East University in Las Cruces from 1:00-3:00pm for an informal discussion of “Fountains of Blood” and a book signing for Straight Outta Tombstone. I’ll also have copies of Owl Dance and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order along with me, if you want more adventures from the characters in my story. I hope I’ll see lots of my Las Cruces friends at NMSU next week!