Lasers on Telescopes

For me, the phrase “lasers on telescopes” brings to mind super villains capturing top secret astronomical facilities in order to execute a nefarious plan. I think of Mr. Freeze capturing Gotham Observatory to build a giant freeze ray in the movie Batman and Robin. Perhaps a funnier and better example is Chairface Chippendale using a laser in a telescope to deface the moon with his name in the TV series The Tick.

Laser measuring tool (on yellow arm between black mirror covers) over the Mayall primary mirror.

In fact, lasers are used on telescopes. Perhaps the best known real-world examples are telescopes that use laser guide stars. This is a technique where astronomers fire a laser mounted on the telescope into the sky. The laser light is scattered by the atmosphere, but optics in the telescope correct that light back into the proper size beam and also correct the stars seen at the same time. We had a system like that at the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak run by CalTech. There was also a system like that at the 3.5-meter telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory.

Now, these lasers are not ones that are likely to be co-opted for nefarious purposes by super villains. Lasers used for guide stars just aren’t that powerful. That said, they can’t be used with impunity. The artificial guide star laser at Kitt Peak was visible in the ultraviolet band and would interfere with optical telescopes also observing in that band. What’s more, I’ve been told Apache Point Observatory had to clear laser firings with the Air Force, who had a base nearby. The observatory’s laser wasn’t likely to shoot down planes, but we could imagine tragic results if a pilot happened to fly through a laser’s line of sight only to be blinded.

This past week, while working at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, we were also using a laser. In this case, it wasn’t fired at the sky, but the laser was mounted on the telescope’s mirror cell and fired at different surfaces on the telescope to get precise measurements. Now that the refit for DESI is nearing completion, the engineers need to make sure everything went back together as it was designed. They need to make sure all the new parts are placed in just the right place. If not, this is the time to make adjustments. Measurements of telescopes are important because they help to assure that astronomers can focus the telescope properly. Precise measurements are also critical to determine the proper weight distribution of the telescope, which in turn helps it track the sky precisely.

As it turns out, I also spent part of this past week working on an adaptive optics system a little like those laser systems I mentioned. However, the WIYN Tip-Tilt Module doesn’t actually use a laser. Instead, it takes precision measurements of an actual star and uses optics within the instrument to bring that star as close as possible to a precise point. I’ve seen it used to deliver incredible image quality with stars only 0.3 arcsecs across. To put that in perspective, star images with WIYN are typically more like 0.8 arcsec across. The size difference is the result of atmospheric blurring.

This all echoes something I’ve been saying in the past few blog posts. If something isn’t quite right, there are ways to fix it, even when its a multi-million dollar scientific project. By comparison, books are much easier to fix. It’s why beta readers and editors are so important to the writing process. They help us see places where we didn’t express ourselves clearly, made something work in an artificial way, or simply used the wrong word. It’s part of why reviews are so important. Reviews help customers, but they also help writers because they tell them what worked and didn’t work.

Over the years, reviews helped me refine my craft until I could write books like Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy. And yes, reviews are helping me shape the 25th anniversary edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’m working on right now. I hope you’ll join me on a journey to one of the worlds I’ve created and, if you do, please leave a review to let me and others know what you thought. The titles in this paragraph are links where you can get more information about the books.

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Stamp Collecting

One thing astronomers do is attempt to classify the objects they see by common properties. For example, stars that display similar chemical fingerprints in their spectra will be assigned a certain spectral type. Galaxies can be grouped by shape such as spiral, barred spiral, elliptical, and my favorite, irregular. Here’s a chart from NASA showing the numbers of exoplanets discovered as grouped by size of planet.

Back in my college days, we called this “stamp collecting.” It’s a somewhat derogatory term because it’s not necessarily the most exciting work in astronomy and its significance can be somewhat misleading. A great example is the whole “is Pluto a planet” debate which was sparked by classifying Pluto a dwarf planet. To my mind a “dwarf planet” is just a type of planet. After all, we orbit a dwarf star! (A G2V yellow dwarf main sequence star if you want more of the taxonomy.)

That said, this process of stamp collecting does serve an important purpose. By seeing how many of what types of objects are out in the universe, it helps us understand how the universe evolved. It helps us see patterns that show us how particular objects might have changed. For example, when I mentioned that the sun is a G2V main sequence star, that not only tells me what it is, but gives me some idea where the star is in its life cycle.

We do stamp collecting in the writing world as well. We classify books broadly by subject: science fiction, horror, romance, adventure, etc. We often take these individual classifications down even finer. A science fiction book can be described as hard science fiction, space opera, military science fiction and more. Like stamp collecting in astronomy, this can be an important process. It helps readers find what they want to read. However, it can also get overblown.

It’s become a reality in the publishing industry that an author’s name is a sort of brand, and authors often get classified right along with their books. Mary Smith writes military science fiction while John Jones writes space opera. Some writers even go so far as to pick different pseudonyms each time they explore not just a new genre, but a new subgenre.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of my own writing career. For most of the last decade, I’ve been very focused on my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels. Now, I’m turning my focus more to my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. To my mind, the two series actually have a lot in common. There’s a real space cowboy vibe in the Space Pirates series that echoes the retrofuturism of the steampunk. Of course, this does cause some people to ask if I’ve finished the Clockwork Legion series or won’t do more steampunk. The answer to both is absolutely not. I think I have many more steampunk stories to tell and many of those will feature Ramon, Fatemeh, Larissa, and the rest of the gang. However, I also like telling stories about Captain Firebrandt, Roberts, and Manuel Raton.

For what it’s worth, I classify myself as a writer of fantastic tales with a retrofuturistic vibe. That captures my steampunk, my space cowboys, and even my vampires, especially when I write stories set in a historical context.

If you’re in Tucson, I hope you’ll join me tomorrow, Sunday, February 10 at 3:30pm at Antigone Books for the Tucson Steampunk Society’s book club meeting where I’ve been invited to discuss my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders, which recently was a top-ten finisher in the Predators and Editors Reader’s Poll for best steampunk novel of 2018. Copies of the novel are available at Antigone and if you let us know you haven’t read it yet, we’ll try not to give away too many spoilers. Antigone Books is located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. If you can’t make it, the book club posts videos of the meeting that will be shared on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/

When Cultures Meet

This week at Kitt Peak National Observatory finds me working with an astronomer logged in and observing from Kyoto, Japan. Meanwhile, on our walkie talkies, we hear French as optical scientists from France work on the new spectrographs at the Mayall Telescope. A favorite memory of working at Kitt Peak involves an astronomer who left the control room at appointed hours to face Mecca and pray. One of the things I enjoy about my “day” job is the way people of different cultures come together to work toward the common goal of understanding the universe around us.

Morning meeting in the Mayall Control Room

At Kitt Peak, our cultural differences allow people to bring different life experiences to the table when solving problems. Language differences can teach us patience as we learn to communicate our goals with members of the same team and who share the same objective. Cultural diversity is also fun as we share our tastes in such things as music, movies, and food.

As someone whose family has lived in the United States since the early days of European colonization, my own culture is defined by a blending of melding of cultural influences from places like Germany, Scotland, and Mexico. Of course, history is replete with examples of people with different cultures having conflicting goals. The results include invasion, forced relocation, and cultural appropriation. There’s more than a little of that in my ancestral background as well on all sides of the issue.

I find the meeting of different cultures inherently fascinating. It forms a big part of my Clockwork Legion books such as The Brazen Shark and Owl Riders. I find it interesting to think what might have been if different cultures met on different terms and perhaps had different perspectives. In science fiction novels such as The Solar Sea, I echo much of what I see at work, people of different cultures coming together for a common goal.

All of this contributed to my excitement when Sheila Hartney proposed assembling an anthology of stories about exchange students to be published by Hadrosaur Productions. There’s a lot of potential for drama as people learn about each other and try to understand each other. Of course, since we publish science fiction and fantasy, Sheila wants to give this anthology a science fictional twist. We want to imagine exchange students coming together from other planets, across time, and across dimensions. Do you have a story of a vampire exchange student staying with a werewolf family? We want to see it? Do you have a story of someone from Earth going to Kepler-22b to study. We want to see it. Do you have a story of an elf studying in dwarven forges? I think you get the idea. The guidelines are at: http://www.hadrosaur.com/ExchangeStudents-gl.html. I hope we’ll see a submission from you.

2018 Publishing Year in Review

As we approach the end of 2018, I wanted to take the opportunity to look back at my books and stories released over the previous year. First and foremost, is my novel Owl Riders, which is the fourth novel in my Clockwork Legion steampunk series. When Fatemeh Karimi married Ramon Morales at the end of Lightning Wolves, she neglected to share one small detail. She was already betrothed to a merchant named Hamid Farzan. She had no interest in Hamid or an arranged marriage. She wanted to live life on her own terms. Eight years after marrying Ramon, she assumed Hamid had long forgotten about her, as she had him.

Settled in New Orleans, Ramon works as an attorney, Fatemeh owns a pharmacy, and they’re proud parents of a precocious daughter. Out west, Apaches armed with powerful battle wagons have captured Fort Bowie and threaten Tucson. Businessmen with an interest in a peaceful solution ask Ramon to come west and settle the conflict. Meanwhile Hamid arrives in New Orleans and he has not forgotten Fatemeh or her vows to him. Now, the famed Owl Riders must assemble once again to reunite Ramon and Fatemeh so they can tame the Wild West. You can learn more or get your very own copy of Owl Riders at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

2018 also saw the release of a new edition of my novel The Solar Sea. This novel is set in the universe of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series and serves as an origin story of sorts for that world. As the novel opens, scientists announce the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. At the same time, whales around the world change their songs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination. You can learn more and purchase your own copy at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html.

I also had two new short stories appear in anthologies. My story, “The Sun Worshiper,” is about a spiritualist named Dinela Stanton who is invited to a mummy unwrapping party in London hosted by a prominent scientist. When she arrives, she finds all her fellow guests are scientists who have denounced her as a fraud. To make matters worse, it would appear that the scientist who invited Dinela is attempting to perpetrate a deception of his own. The story appears in the anthology After Punk published by eSpec Books.  Featuring stories by Jody Lynn Nye, David Sherman, Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin, James Chambers, Michelle D. Sonnier, Jeffrey Lyman, Bernie Mojzes, and more, these tales explore voodoo death cults to the Day of the Dead, mummy parties, the wheel of reincarnation, the practice of death portraits, and so much more. No gravestone is left unturned. Check out the book at: https://www.amazon.com/After-Punk-Steampowered-Tales-Afterlife-ebook/dp/B07CW3S8R8/.

My second short story that appeared this year is “The Power in Unity” and it’s the first new story I’ve written set on the planet Sufiro since the publication of Heirs of the New Earth in 2007. The events of this story take place between the end of part 2 and the beginning of part 3 of The Pirates of Sufiro. In Pirates I mention an incident where the people of the Tejan continent attempt to capture people from the New Granadan continent to work in their mines. When the Tejans attempted to take the New Granadans by force, a lawman named Manuel Raton stopped them at a place named for the final battle of Arthurian legend, Camlan Pass. This is the story of how Camlan Pass got its name. The story of Manuel Raton and Mary Hill bears a striking resemblance to the story of Mordred and Arthur as told in The History of the Kings of Britain written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. In that story, Mordred married Guinevere while Arthur journeyed across Europe. I hope you’ll pick up a copy of the anthology to see how I twisted this tale from the dark ages into one of interplanetary intrigue, mining rites, and strange aliens with tentacles. Camelot 13 features stories by Michael A. Black & Dave Case, John G. Hartness, Hildy Silverman, Diane Raetz, Russ Colchamiro, Austin Camacho, Quintin Peterson, Patrick Thomas, D. C. Brod, Susanne Wolf & John L. French, Edward J. McFadden III, and Robert E. Waters. You can pick up your own copy at: https://www.amazon.com/Camelot-13-Celebrating-Knights-Padwolf/dp/1890096776/.

Finally, I wrap up this report with mentions of two important reprints. The first is a reprint of my story “A Specter in the Light” which tells a story of mysterious experiments with Tesla Coils and things raised from the dark in the early days of the New Mexico School of Mines. That story appears in the anthology DeadSteam, edited by Bryce Raffle. It’s available at: https://www.amazon.com/DeadSteam-Bryce-Raffle/dp/0995276749/.

Last but not least, is the mass market release of Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop, which includes my vampire story “Fountains of Blood.” This anthology features so many authors I admire, including Alan Dean Foster, Robert E. Vardeman, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Phil Foglio, Jim Butcher and more. This book is almost certainly on the shelf of a store near you. Otherwise, you can pick it up at: https://www.amazon.com/Straight-Outta-Tombstone-David-Boop-ebook/dp/B071JGTN3H/.

Thank you to all the readers out there who have supported me and helped to make 2018 a great year!

Holiday Owls

Since today is Christmas Eve, I thought it would be fitting to share a short excerpt from my novel Owl Dance. In this scene, Ramon and Fatemeh find themselves on the run with little money in San Francisco. It’s a simple moment that gets to the heart of the season. Keep reading after the segment to learn about a special event later this week.


Ramon returned to the room he shared with Fatemeh late on Christmas Eve. Fatemeh noticed he wore a new pair of glasses. Like his old pair, they were round and gave his face an owlish appearance. He held his hands behind his back. Fatemeh stood and wrapped her arms around Ramon, but was surprised when he didn’t return the embrace. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Ramon’s voice held a sly edge.

“It looks like you were successful in finding new glasses.”

 Ramon smiled.“Yes, these are even better than the old ones.” He shrugged. “The optometrist thinks my eyes have been getting a little worse.”

“That’s too bad.” Fatemeh returned to her chair.

“However, I did have enough money left over to get you something.” He brought his arms out from behind his back. In his hand was a narrow box, about eight inches long. “Merry Christmas!” Just then he pulled the box back. “Do Bahá’ís celebrate Christmas?”

“Not normally,”said Fatemeh, “but as I’ve said, we respect the teachings of Jesus. I’m happy to celebrate his birth with you, Ramon.” She held out her hand and Ramon handed her the box. She opened it and saw a necklace. Adorning it was a hand-carved wooden bead in the shape of an owl.

“I bought the necklace. I carved the owl myself, though.”

“It’s very sweet.” Fatemeh smiled and put the necklace on. She stood and kissed Ramon, but held his hands as they parted. “How is our money doing?”

“I think I can find a job, but it’s not going to pay much,” admitted Ramon. “We could stay here about six more days and I could keep looking, or we could move on.”

“I like the idea of moving on.” Fatemeh returned to her chair. “I really didn’t like the reception we had on our first day and it’s loud here, even late at night.” She looked out the window at a saloon across the street.

“Where would you like to go?”

She pulled out a map and set it on the small table between the room’s two chairs. “What do you know about Los Angeles?”

“It’s a small town. There’s some farms and some industrial work.” Ramon shrugged.

“What does Los Angeles mean?”

“It means ‘belonging to the angels,’ The name’s short for something like town of the queen of angels.”

“Sounds lovely. Can we leave tomorrow?”

Ramon laughed.“Tomorrow’s Christmas. I doubt the trains are even running. What about the next day?”

“That sounds perfect.” Fatemeh put her hand to the new necklace. “I’m afraid I didn’t get you a present. What else do people do on Christmas?”

“We sing songs.” Ramon sat in the empty chair next to Fatemeh.

“Teach me a Christmas song worthy of the angels, Ramon.”


I hope you enjoyed this little snippet of Owl Dance. On Friday this week, Lynn Moorer of KTAL Radio in Las Cruces will interview me about the fourth book of the series, Owl Riders. If you’re in Las Cruces, you can listen from 12:30-1:00pm mountain standard time by tuning in to 101.5 FM on your radio dial. If you aren’t in Las Cruces, or just don’t listen to shows on the radio, you can stream the show at  https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html. I had a great time earlier this year when I spoke to Lynn about The Brazen Shark. Be sure to mark your calendars so you can catch the show live!

Always Available

It occurs to me that a central theme in many of my stories is communication. Some of my stories are set in the past, well before the advent of modern communication, or they’re set in the distant future, when communication becomes a technical challenge again because of the constraints imposed both by the speed of light and signal degradation over distance. This proves to be an interesting time to write about these challenges, because most of us have some form or another of this device.

Most of us are available to get a call or receive a text 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We might be inconvenienced by the occasional dead time during a flight where we’re instructed to turn off our phones to avoid interfering with navigation equipment, but that’s about it.

That said, I work in a world where I’m not so easily available. I work at an observatory with radio telescopes and the spread spectrum signals from cell phones interfere with their observing. So, I’m required to turn off my phone while at work. Because my work shifts require me to be on the mountain for up to six days at a time, I can be out of cell phone contact that whole time. Even observatories without radio telescopes are often in remote mountain areas, out of range of cell service. Because of this, the whole lack of cell service became a plot point in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. This is a nice feature for a horror novel where you don’t want help to arrive at a moment’s notice.

In my novel The Solar Sea, a valiant crew of explorers take a solar sail to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Even on relatively short distances like within the solar system, communication can be a challenge. On average, it takes about 15 minutes for a signal traveling at the speed of light to reach Mars, about 30 minutes for a signal to reach Jupiter, and almost an hour and a half to reach Saturn. This assumes the planets are aligned on the same side of the sun as Earth. Still, imagine having a conversation where you speak and wait 15 minutes for your voice to get to Earth, then wait 15 minutes for a reply. Your messages would be more like voice mails. Or you might resort to something like email or texts for communication, which is what they do in my novel.

Back in the nineteenth century, inventors were working on ways to use electromagnetism to speed up communication. The upshot was the development of the telegraph and then the telephone. I have long found it interesting how delays in news affected events before these inventions, and even before these inventions became widely available. This allows for some fun what-if games when writing steampunk. What if instant communication was available to some? How would people view it in the 19th century. In Lightning Wolves, bounty hunter Larissa Crimson asks Professor Maravilla to devise a way for her lightning wolf corps to communicate as they spread out across San Francisco. He devises something he calls a clacker, essentially a portable, wireless telegraph that acts like a messaging device. Eight years later, in Owl Riders, clackers are much more widespread to Ramon Morales’s chagrin. At one point, he hands his clacker to his wife and pretends he didn’t get a message, an action perhaps not unlike what some of us are tempted to do today when certain texts come in.

Remember, all of these books make great last-minute holiday gifts. You can find these and more at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html.


Short Sleeps

When I tell people I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona, one of the first questions I’m asked is some variation of how that works, especially once they realize the two points are approximately 325 miles apart. The answer is that I have a dorm room at the observatory. Here’s what it looks like.

The room is assigned to me permanently, so as you can see, I’ve added some personal touches. This time of year, I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time in the comfort of my room. I often think of the period from November through February as the time of the short sleeps. It’s sort of a counterpoint to Clement Moore’s “long winter’s nap” from his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Of course, the reason this is the time of the short sleeps is because of the long winter night. At optical observatories, we try to maximize the time we’re on the sky and that means data taking starts soon after sunset and finishes just a little before sunrise. To get the telescope ready for observations, I actually have to be at work before sunset. How close to sunrise we work in the morning depends on the scientific requirements of the program, but it’s not uncommon for me to work right up until sunrise. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for me to get six hours of sleep through the day before starting another day of work. Even if I wanted to commute 325 miles each day, it would be impossible.  For that matter, living closer wouldn’t necessarily help. It’s still 50 miles to Tucson.

I’m often asked whether I can write during my long nights at the observatory. The reality is that work takes enough of my attention that I really can’t compose new material while I’m at work. However, sometimes we do get into situations where I’m monitoring a long exposure and just need to look up from time to time to make sure the instrumentation is behaving as expected. During those times, I find I can edit stories. I also sometimes bring a good book to keep me company on a long winter’s night.

A casual observer will likely notice from the photo of my room that I’m a fan of Cowboy Bebop. Of course, followers of this blog will know that I’m generally a fan of space cowboys and space pirates. A closer look at the photo will reveal some badges from past conventions tacked to the bulletin board in the background. My schedule is such that it’s not uncommon for me to go from an event directly to work at the observatory.

My favorite things in this photo, though, are two things made for me by my family. My wife made the crochet jackalope next to my bed, which helped to inspire the jackalope harvesters in my Clockwork Legion novels. My daughter drew the lightning wolf picture which hangs to the right of my bed. The lightning wolf is, of course, the mechanized bicycle designed by bounty hunter Larissa Crimson in the same series. I’ve shown off both of these in more detail in other posts.

Of course, the Clockwork Legion books make good companions through the long, dark nights of winter. You can learn more about the books by visiting the links at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion