New Year's Eve at Kitt Peak

Earlier this week, I rang in the new year while on the job, helping observers commission the DESI spectrograph on the Mayall 4-meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Looking back, I see I rang in eight years of the last decade at the observatory. So, working on New Year’s Eve is getting to be something of a tradition for me.

Working at the observatory on New Year’s Eve is much like working on any other night of the year. It all starts out with me evaluating the weather. In the photo, I’m standing in front of the Mayall, watching the sunset. Throughout the week I had watched a forecasted storm for the night get downgraded to the point that we expected reasonable observing conditions. The night actually arrived with dark clouds and light snow. Not only was this unwelcome for observing, but New Year’s Eve was the last night of my shift and I didn’t relish the idea of driving on snowy roads.

The poor weather didn’t keep us from our commissioning work. On an instrument where 5000-robotic fibers must be precisely aligned with targets on the sky and then send the light from those targets to ten spectrographs, there’s still plenty of work that may be accomplished with the dome closed. We started with some spectrograph calibration tests, trying to answer whether it matters where the telescope is pointed when we calibrate the instrument. There was some concern about whether or not twisting of fibers at different telescope orientations might make subtle changes to the light going through them and affect the measurements we hope to make. This is important to understand and characterize before we start making measurements.

Another job we had was to test a camera that looks at the fibers on the telescope. That’s how we know the fibers are on the correct objects. We can test this camera because DESI includes some fibers that can be illuminated. This means the fiber view camera can see the position of some fibers even when we’re not looking at the sky. The telescope itself is big and flexes as it points around the sky. Understanding how objects appear on the fiber view camera depending on where we point is also an important job. We can do a lot by pointing the telescope in the closed dome with the test fibers illuminated.

Testing a new, complex system also uncovers software bugs and errors in procedure. The lead software developer on this project is fond of using barnyard sounds like a chicken clucking or a cow mooing when an error occurs. So, these sounds do occasionally intrude into our work, which means the software people need to debug code or help observers refine procedures. This is also productive work for a cloudy, snowy night. I’m also convinced that I need to find a way to work barnyard noises into some future high-tech science fiction space opera!

At 10pm, we tuned into the live feed from Times Square in New York to watch the ball drop while we worked. At midnight, we took enough of a break to toast the new year with mugs of coffee. Kitt Peak National Observatory is on the land of the Tohono O’Odham, so no alcohol is allowed, even if we weren’t working.

When the decade started, I thought of myself as “the temp” on the operations staff at Kitt Peak. I returned to Kitt Peak after nearly fifteen years to help the observatory with a staffing challenge and stabilize my income long enough to achieve some personal goals. Ten years later, I’ve achieved most of my goals, but I still think of myself as “the temp.” It’s an attitude that serves me well.

In the current political climate, I can’t guarantee my job will always be funded so I don’t take for granted I’ll have this job for an indefinite period of time. More importantly having the attitude of being “the temp” assures that I always feel free to speak my mind when needed and avoid self censorship, which is important in a job where I’m responsible for the safety of visitors. Also like any good temporary employee, I want to stay in the good graces of my employers, so it assures that I always try to do my best and constantly hone my craft.

As one decade finishes and another begins, I’m thankful to have a good and interesting job expanding humankind’s knowledge of the universe, but I also stand ready to take on whatever challenges that universe decides to throw at me in the coming decade.

2019 Storms In

I spent New Year’s Eve at Kitt Peak National Observatory as a snow storm blew over the mountaintop. Operations are scheduled at the observatory every night of the year except for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Even then, we have staff on the mountain during the holiday to service the instruments and keep an eye on the site. My job requires that I be at the telescope even during inclement weather. That’s partly because the weather is capricious and we need to be available in case the weather unexpectedly clears. I also need to service the instruments and I’m also the guy who calls the Arizona Department of Transportation to let them know how much snow they can expect at the top of Highway 386, which is the highway that leads to the top of the mountain.

Partly because I was working and partly because Kitt Peak is located on the land of the Tohono O’Odham Nation, no alcohol is allowed on the site. So, I toasted the new year with a strong cup of coffee. Because it was a stormy night, I had a good book. I was working with an observer in Wisconsin, logged into the telescope remotely from his home. He got to see the new year come in an hour before I did. When the new year came in, I received celebratory emails from my family in New Mexico and Missouri.

For us, stormy nights are an exercise in watching the weather. As I say, we want to be ready to take advantage of any clearing. Also, even if it doesn’t clear, I need to report the conditions to the highway department and fellow staff who will drive up the mountain the next day. I’m also on standby to respond to any weather-related emergencies at night. I’ve had nights at the observatory where the wind has knocked out power but the generators haven’t turned on. In that case, I need to investigate. We need the generators so we can stay in touch with remote observers and clear skies don’t care whether or not we have utility power. Also, though it’s not the most exciting aspect of my job, I’m also the guy who compiles usage statistics for the mountain during a night, which are then reported to our funding agencies.

At the end of the night, I shoveled the snow from around the door to the telescope where I was working, drove down to the main parking lot, then tromped through about four inches of snow to my dorm room. I woke up later on New Year’s afternoon to find that the road to the summit had been plowed and to see our supervisor of mountain operations using a front end loader to clear the roads on the mountain’s summit.

If we had been observing, we would have been taking images of Comet 46P/Wirtanen as it made its closest approach to the Earth. Essentially comets are dirty snowballs that provide a window into the conditions and materials available in the early solar system. Instead of watching a dirty snowball in space, we got to watch snow fall right here on Earth.

Stormy nights like the one we experienced on New Year’s Eve were part of the inspiration for the storms in my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Of course, one of my jobs is to keep the bad things that happen in that novel from happening at Kitt Peak. You can learn more about the novel and watch a short trailer at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

Happy New Year 2017!

Several years ago, I resolved to give up New Year’s resolutions. I’ve been pretty successful so far, though I do have to admit to making a couple here and there since then. Last week, there was an article at Forbes.com that expressed much of what I don’t like about resolutions and further presented a better alternative, parts of which I already do. In short, the article suggests that you visualize the life you want and figure out the steps you need to take to get from where you are to that point. It also encourages you to give yourself permission to learn from mistakes as you continue that journey.

In many ways, I’m pretty happy with my life and I’m growing increasingly comfortable that “not everyone gets my kind of jazz” as author Liz Ryan says in the article. That said, I have several personal and professional goals I hope to achieve in the coming years and here at the beginning of 2017, I’m taking a little quiet time to think about the best ways to make those dreams a reality.

straight-outta-tombstone

That said, I’m already committed to several projects that are proceeding toward completion as this year begins. July will see the release of Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop. The anthology contains my weird western vampire story “Fountains of Blood.” I’m excited to be sharing a table of contents with people like Jim Butcher, Kevin J. Anderson, Phil Foglio, and Jody Lynn Nye, as well as old friends such as Bob Vardeman and Nicole Kurtz. I’m both proud and humbled to be in this anthology and I’m not ashamed to say that getting into an anthology of this caliber has long been one of my career objectives. I also have work accepted for an anthology of Arthurian stories called Camelot 13 which will be published by Padwolf Publishing. My story is a science fictional retelling of Arthur’s final battle and looks at how people who love each other can end up finding ways to destroy each other.

In addition to these anthologies, I’ve edited two anthologies that I hope to see released in the coming months. One of those is Kepler’s Cowboys that I co-edited with Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA’s K2 mission. In this anthology we picked stories that imagine the brave men and women that will explore the new frontiers of worlds discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope in its Kepler and K2 missions. I hope to set a formal publication date soon, but I’m tentatively aiming for a release in mid-March to early-April. The other anthology is Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales coming from Wordfire Press. This anthology presents the best three stories from each of the Full-Throttle Space Tales anthologies. This series presented a fun, high octane stories exploring everything from space pirates to space battles. At this point, it looks like the anthology should be released in early summer. I’ll present more information about both books here at the Web Journal in the coming weeks.

I am under contract to write a fourth Clockwork Legion novel tentatively titled Owl Riders. I have an outline and this is the next major writing project in my queue. I can tell you that this novel is set approximately seven years after The Brazen Shark and finds Ramon and Fatemeh Morales working to make a life in New Orleans when the Apache Wars and the arrival of Fatemeh’s one-time betrothed interfere. 1884_fair_octaganal Not only do I plan to write, I have plans for at least one trip to New Orleans to visit locations in the novel such as the site of the 1884 Worlds Fair, where the novel opens. One of its buildings is shown on the right. Also, in the world of the Clockwork Legion, I understand audio editions of the first three books are in production and should be released this year.

Beyond that, I’ve already spoken to organizers about appearing at some events this spring and summer. I expect to attend both Wild Wild West Con and the Tucson Festival of Books in Tucson this March. I’ve signed up for a vendor table at El Paso Comic Con in April and I also plan to be at Westercon in Phoenix over the July 4 weekend.

The article I cited at the top of the post suggests that the big problem with resolutions is that they come from that authority-figure place in your brain that tells you what you should be doing. The realization I came to when I gave up resolutions years ago was that life should be fun and full of adventure as well as challenging. Most of the things I’ve discussed in this post are projects that I’m committed to either verbally or by formal contract. That said, they’re all fun and I’m looking forward to all of them. As I visualize beyond those projects, my goal will be to continue the journey, and so doing, continue my growth as a writer and as a person.

Wishing you the very best in this new year.

2012 in review

Yesterday I shared the summary of my year with you. Today, WordPress sent their annual report of my blog stats. I enjoy reading these and seeing what topics struck a chord with people. Hope you enjoy the report as well. Happy New Year!


The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.