DESI Naked!

This weekend finds me at Bubonicon 51 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m moderating panels about space cowboys and large scale scientific surveys. If you’re in town, click the link to get the details and drop by. I’d love to see you there. Of course, part of my interest in large scale scientific surveys has to do with the work I’ve been helping with over the last year and a half, installing the DESI Spectrograph at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. During my my recent shift at the observatory, I got a rare look at the new instrument not just “under the hood” but before the hood even went on.

In the photo above, you see DESI on the left, just over the orange platform. Standing on the ground floor in the foreground are just a few of the telescope engineers and technicians who have been installing this new, innovative instrument which will be used to make a 3D map of about a third of the known universe. DESI itself is an array of 5000 fibers mounted on robot positioners that can be precisely centered on targets each time the telescope moves. The light from those objects then travels down fibers two stories below. The fiber bundles are ready to be run along the telescope. You see them coiled up on the white carts to the lower right of the photo above. Each black cable contains 500 fibers. One of my jobs this week was labeling those cables so people can keep it straight which cable is which as they run them along the telescope.

Here are all the DESI fiber positioners mounted to the telescope. You can see each of the ten cables coming up into ten sets of fiber positioner “petals.” Each of these petals was installed into the telescope with great care about a month ago. Light was placed on all the fibers and it was confirmed that in all the transportation and installation, none of the fibers were broken. All of them transmit light as expected! This week, the control electronics are being wired up and routed through the telescope. Once this chore is complete, more testing will happen to assure that the fibers still transmit light and each of the robot positioners moves as expected using the electronics routed through the telescope.

All of those fibers will eventually come into a clean room downstairs to a series of ten spectrographs. Do you begin to sense a pattern? Ten petals, ten cables, ten spectrographs. As it turns out, another job of mine this week was helping to install the seventh spectrograph, which you see in the lower right of the photo above. Western fan that I am, I feel like you can now cue Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven. Of course, that won’t last long. soon we’ll have an eighth, ninth, and tenth spectrograph.

Each of those spectrographs will be used to examine the light from 500 fibers. To make the map, we’ll be using these spectrographs to see how far characteristic chemical lines in spectra have shifted from where they normally sit within the rainbow toward the red end, which is one measure of how far away those objects are. We’ll compare that to statistics of how far apart they are, which turns out to be another measure of how far away they are. That said, just because we’re mostly looking for the redshifts, there will be all kinds of other spectral data available that can tell astronomers all kinds of information about properties of galaxies all over the sky. One of the most exciting things about the DESI program is that this data will be available to all. In this post, I may be laying DESI bare for all to see, but the whole project will be laying much of the universe bare, and in the process expanding the body of astronomical knowledge.

  • For a fictional and frightening look behind the scenes at an astronomical observatory, read The Astronomer’s Crypt.
  • To take a tour through the wonders of the solar system, read The Solar Sea.
  • To travel back in time to the Old West, check out Owl Dance!

Bubonicon 51

Bubonicon 51 will take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico this coming weekend, Friday August 23 through Sunday August 25. The guests of honor are Allen Steele, author of Arkwright, and Ursula Vernon, artist and author. The toastmaster is Darynda Jones, author of Summoned to the Thirteenth Grave. The guest artist is Greg Spalenka, who designed the logo you see in this post. The science speaker is Dr. Harrison Schmidt, the Apollo 17 astronaut, geologist, and former senator from New Mexico. The convention’s theme is “The Future is Now.” I will be there all weekend as both a guest author and a vendor. Bubonicon 51 will be held at the Albuquerque Marriott Uptown at 2101 Louisiana Boulevard. You can get more information about the convention at http://bubonicon.com.


My schedule is as follows:

Saturday, August 24

11am-noon. Main Room. Space Cowboys: Where Westerns and Space Opera Collide. Malcolm Reynolds hauled cattle on his spaceship. Captain Harlock strode through batwing doors into a few dusty saloons. Captain Kirk’s show was originally described as “Wagon Train to the Stars.” And then there’s the animated BraveStarr. At what point does the hero of a space opera become a space cowboy? How “retro” can you make your space opera before it becomes fantasy or steampunk? I’ll be moderating this panel that includes such luminaries as Robert E. Vardeman, Craig Butler, Susan Matthews, and Allen Steele.

4-5pm. Salon A-D. Surveying the Universe. Traditionally, astronomers made a hypothesis, applied for time on telescopes, took their data and examined it. That model is being replaced by large scale surveys being conducted by organizations such as the Department of Energy and NASA. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing astronomy, and science in general, by large scale survey as opposed to small teams working on their own questions? I’ll be moderating this panel which includes John Barnes, Loretta Hall, Kathy Kitts, and Cathy Plesko.

5:25-6:40pm. Main Room. Mass Autographing. All the Bubonicon guests will be happy to sign your books, art, or whatever you happen to bring. If it has the property of mass, I’ll do my best to sign it!

Sunday, August 25

2:45-3:30pm. Salon A-D. 45 minutes with David Lee Summers. I will read from my recent work. I’m thinking a sample of the revised version of The Pirates of Sufiro, but I may include a surprise or two if there’s time.


If you’re in Albuquerque this coming weekend, I hope you’ll drop by Bubonicon and check out a few of the many panels going on over the course of the weekend. Please drop into the “flea market” where Hadrosaur Productions will be set up. You can preview our wares, or shop online, at: http://www.hadrosaur.com.

Seeing Daylight Once Again

As I write this, the DESI Commissioning Instrument run at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory will be nearing completion. The Commissioning Instrument is an array of five digital cameras that view the sky through the telescope’s new optics. Once the Commissioning Instrument comes off, the actual DESI fibers and robot positioners will be assembled at the focal plane. This is a process that’s estimated to take about three months to complete. During that time, I’ll be returning to day shifts at the Mayall telescope, helping with the installation. The DESI fiber “wedges” are starting to arrive and assembly has actually begun on some components down on the telescope’s ground floor.

There is a terrific video describing the DESI project and showing these wedges being populated with the fibers in the lab that you can watch at: https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2018/10/17/dark-energy-project-robots-3d-map-universe/

The DESI fibers are the business end of getting light from distant galaxies where it needs to go to be analyzed. Light traveling for billions of light years will be sent through those fibers to be separated and photographed by spectrographs. Before light gets to the fibers, it has to be collected by the telescope, where it will pass through an optical corrector lens. The corrector makes sure that when the telescope is focused, each fiber will also see an equally focused object. Of course, to do this, the whole instrument has to be aligned well with the primary mirror so we know each target lines up with a fiber.

The goal of the Commissioning Instrument is to give us a simple camera that lets us check that the corrector lens is doing its job. It also allows us to test the alignment and focus mechanism, which we call the hexapod. We want to make sure these critical components work before going to all the work of assembling all those fibers at the top of the telescope. In fact, during the Commissioning Instrument run, we discovered that the corrector was eight millimeters too close to the primary mirror. This was a result of telescope blueprints from 1973 not being updated with as-built specs. Eight millimeters may not sound like much, but it’s enough to keep the fibers from being in focus during the warmest nights of the year! So, the hexapod and corrector assembly were moved, which is much easier to do now than when all the fibers are in place.

I have enjoyed my day shifts at the Mayall this past year. It’s given me a chance to interact with more of the maintenance and engineering crew than I normally do in my nighttime operations. I won’t be working exclusively during the daytime. I will still spend one week a month supporting nighttime observations at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. If you would like a behind the scenes look at what it’s like to work at an observatory at night, along with something of a scary story, check out my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Exploring Space

Today, I’m at TusCon, in Tucson, Arizona where I’m anxiously awaiting the world premier of the film Revenge of Zoe, in which I have a small part. If you’re in Tucson, please drop by the convention and say hello. You can learn more about the event at: http://www.tusconscificon.com

A little over a week ago, I received an email from Bill Nye the Science Guy in his role as CEO of the Planetary Society, an organization I proudly support. The email encouraged members to take a photo with a Planetary Society T-shirt or with a sign included in the email. I was at work at Kitt Peak and I used my laptop to take this selfie which I then tweeted:

I first joined the Planetary Society in 1983, when the organization was only three-years old. It was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman who recognized a tremendous public interest in space. This was about three years after Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking television series Cosmos and the Voyager flyby of Saturn.

The Planetary Society’s newsletter, The Planetary Report, became a great source of information about what was happening in solar system exploration. It helped reinforce my interest in astronomy as I was deciding what kind of career I wanted to pursue. One article I remember in particular talked about the possibility of solar sails. I have a vivid memory of a painting of a heliogyro, a type of solar sail that was not only pushed by sunlight, but spun, so that the centrifugal force could provide simulated gravity for the crew. This sparked my imagination and I started writing a novel called The Solar Sea.

I started my college career in 1984. I didn’t have time to continue my novel at the time, so it waned. Also, on a college student’s budget, I let my membership in the Planetary Society lapse. After college, I did make a couple of attempts to restart the novel, but was never happy with the direction it was going. It wasn’t until 2007 that my publisher challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month that I finally sat down and wrote the book.

It’s probably a good thing that I waited to write the novel. In the 24 years from 1983 until 2007, I learned quite a bit more about the solar system. I also learned a lot more about plot and character. I had long ago thrown away the original draft of the novel and wrote the new version from scratch. By that point, the novel couldn’t wait to get out onto the page. I had no problem completing the NaNoWriMo challenge. I spent December and January after NaNoWriMo finishing the novel. My publisher loved it enough to take it and the first edition appeared soon after. The second edition of The Solar Sea was released earlier this year and you can pick it up at: https://www.amazon.com/Solar-Sea-David-Lee-Summers/dp/1885093845/.

I’m sorry to say the Planetary Society itself fell off my radar until 2015. Fortunately, I became aware of a Kickstarter they had started to fund a solar sail experiment. I contributed to Kickstarter and rejoined the Society. I’m glad I did and proud to be part of a group that works to keep space exploration alive and well. The Lightsail 2 craft that was funded by the Kickstarter is now built and installed in a Cubesat awaiting launch. At this point, it’s expected Lightsail 2 will launch in early 2019. You can learn more about the Planetary Society and all of its initiatives, including the development of solar sails by visiting: http://www.planetary.org.

By the way, that amazing painting I mentioned of a real heliogyro solar sail that inspired my dreams of writing a novel is on their website. You can find it at: http://www.planetary.org/explore/projects/lightsail-solar-sailing/story-of-lightsail-part-1.html. The essay also gives you a great overview of the history and science of solar sailing.

Bubonicon 50

Next weekend, I’ll be a panelist and dealer at Bubonicon 50 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bubonicon is Albuquerque’s premier science fiction convention and this year in honor of its golden anniversary, it’s looking back at the Golden Age of science fiction. The co-guests of honor are Mary Robinette Kowal and John Scalzi. The toastmaster is Lee Moyer and the artist guest of honor is Eric Velhagen. The convention will be held from Friday, August 24 through Sunday, August 26 at the Albuquerque Mariott Uptown. You can get more information about the convention at bubonicon.com

My schedule for the convention is as follows:

Friday, August 24

  • 4-5pm – Main Room – What the Future Looked Like: Then and Now. What did the future look like in the “Golden Age” of SF? And how does it look now? What has changed? Is there more or less fear of Atomic Apocalypse now? Did any books or films of the 1940s-50s accurately predict some of today’s technology or ecological/sociological situations? Did anyone back then predict the power and influence of social media? And what kind of world will we live in come 2070, at least as predicted now? What inventions have been “predicted” by SF writers? The panel will be moderated by Craig Butler. On the panel with me are Arlan Andrews Sr, Sarena Ulibari, and Walter Jon Williams.
  • 9-10pm – Main Room – Do Ray Guns and Rocket Ships Still Spark the Imagination? Back in the Pulp Era and then the Golden Age of Science Fiction, ray guns, robots and rockets inspired a generation of space exploration, and leaps in science and technology. Do these icons and their modern counterparts still inspire our young folks? Has it all become fluff without substance? And how have these iconic items changed between 1945 and now? I’ll be moderating this panel. On the panel are Mary Robinette Kowal, Cynthia Felice, Laura J. Mixon, and Robert E. Vardeman.

Saturday, August 25

  • 10-11am – Main Room – The Changing Role of the Editor. With the various ways that fiction is published (print/online/audio/self-pubbed), how is the role of editor changing? Does the editor need to be more technician than tweaking expert these days? Is self-publishing making the editor’s job obsolete? Why or why not? What can a good editor do for a writer? What steps can you take to improve your own editing? When do you really need outside help? To what extent can authors really self-edit effectively? The panel will be moderated by Sarena Ulibari. On the panel with me are John Barnes, Jeffe Kenedy, and Gabi Stevens.
  • 3-4pm – Main Room – The Death of Stars and Planets. In this panel, we’ll be discussing the different ways stars and planets can meet their end and what happens after they meet their end. Is there life after death for stars and planets? The panel will be moderated by Loretta Hall. Also on the panel will be Kathy Kitts and Cathy S. Plesko.

Sunday, August 26

  • 10-11am – Salon A-D – The Shifting View of Science. How has our view of science changed since Science Fiction’s Golden Age? How has that affected the SF that’s written and published? Are we more optimistic or pessimistic about science today than then? Has our view of science become more realistic? The panel will be moderated by Cathy S. Plesko. On the panel with me will be Kathy Kitts, M.T. Reiten, and Caroline Spector.
  • 1:30-2:30pm – Santa Fe Room – 55 Minutes with David Lee Summers. I’ll read from Straight Outta Tombstone and Owl Riders. Since the room will have a screen and a projector, I may even show some slides!

If you’re in Albuquerque next weekend, I hope you’ll drop by Bubonicon. When I’m not at one of the events above, you’ll likely find me at Hadrosaur Productions’ dealer’s table in the Flea Market. Be sure to stop by and see what new things we have to offer.

The Circle of (a Writer’s) Life

On Friday, I typed “The End” at the bottom of the last page of my latest book, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The book collects previously published stories of a space pirate captain named Ellison Firebrandt and his crew and adds some new stories to create what amounts to a “fix-up novel.” Each chapter is a short story, but the whole thing forms a complete story arc.

Like typing “The End” on most books, this really represents the beginning of the road to publication for this book. In this case, I don’t expect editing to be quite as arduous as some books I’ve worked on. Many of the original stories have been edited by such people as Hugo-nominated editors Jennifer Brozek and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. Of course, the new stories will need a critical eye and care will need to be taken to make sure the stories all work together as a whole. For those who want an early look, chapters 1 and 12 are available for anyone to read at my Patreon site. Thirteen chapters are available to read for all patrons—and it only costs $1.00 per month to be a patron. You may cancel at any time. I plan to share the last two stories this month. The site is: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Now these chapters are likely to get tweaked as beta readers and my editor work their way through it, but your support will help me pay cover artist Laura Givens and help pay the costs of editing and typesetting the book. What’s more, to show my appreciation, I plan to share a gift code with my patrons that will allow them to download the complete book once finished. I’ve also adjusted my Patreon goals. One of those goals is that with sufficient support, I can make this blog ad free.

As it turns out, I finished this book the day after I received news that I had been promoted from “Observing Associate” at Kitt Peak National Observatory to “Senior Observing Associate.” In essence, the promotion recognizes my seniority at the observatory plus the work I’ve been doing with the on-line manuals for my fellow operations’ staff.

These moments coming together do cause me to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m going. I worked in astronomy full time from 1990 until 2000. At which point, I decided to devote myself to writing and editing full time. I did that until 2008 when staff members at Kitt Peak asked me if I wanted to return. I agreed under the provision that writing was recognized as my primary career. So far, my supervisors have been very supportive of this. I also returned because I feel astronomy is a way that I contribute to the larger body of human knowledge. My position as an astronomer and a writer allows me to communicate some of what we learn to the public through appearances at conventions and through this blog. This broader support mission is not part of my job, though, it’s supported through sales of my books and Patreon supporters.

My schedule at the observatory is not all that flexible, it involves working long nights, and those nights often require full concentration. My pay is pretty good for living in the southwest, but even with the most recent raise, it’s still below the average salary in the US according the Census Bureau. I note this just to point out that despite my full-time job, I’m not a well-to-do hobbyist. I do need support from sources like book sales and Patreon to continue publishing and to afford travel to events.

So, looking ahead, I’ll spend this fall polishing Firebrandt’s Legacy for publication. I’m scheduled to appear at several events including Bubonicon in Albuquerque, CoKoCon in Phoenix, TusCon in Tucson plus I’ll be signing books next month at a local bookstore. More about each of those soon.

I’m also working on some projects that I can’t discuss yet and am not entirely sure when I’ll be able to announce them or whether they’ll bear fruit at all. I say this less to tease you and more to say I am working on things in the background. In the meantime, as I announced on July 21, after Firebrandt’s Legacy is complete, I do plan to turn my attention to a new edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which was my very first novel. In a way, “The End” on Firebrandt’s Legacy has caused me to spiral back to the first book I wrote and I hope to take what I’ve learned on life’s journey so far and make it an even better book. Whether it’s through my books, appearances at conventions, Patreon, the web journal or some combination, I hope you’ll come along with me for this exciting journey.

The Orville

Last week, I watched the first season of Seth MacFarlane’s new series, The Orville, with my daughter who’s home from college. Marketed as a science fiction comedy in the vein of Galaxy Quest, I find that the show is, in many ways, a true successor to Star Trek.

The premise of the show is that Captain Ed Mercer, played by MacFarlane, has just been given command of a mid-size exploratory vessel. To his chagrin, his ex-wife Kelly Grayson played by Adrianne Palicki serves as his first officer. Other members of the crew include Lt. Commander Bortus, the Klingon-like second officer from the Planet Moclan, Lt. Alara Kitan, the hyper-strong but young security chief from the planet Xelaya, and Lt. Gordon Malloy, Ed’s wisecracking friend who serves as the ship’s helmsman.

The first couple of episodes focused more on the humor, but as the show progressed it became decidedly more like classic Star Trek exploring themes of gender, religion, and the role of social media in society. It’s even taken on some interesting science fictional ideas such as what exploring other dimensions would mean, our interactions with life forms both more advanced and more primitive, and time travel.

Overall, the show’s exploration of science fiction themes works. This is perhaps no surprise since there’s a strong overlap of production staff not only with some of the Star Trek series, but with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. Although the show keeps its humor low-key, it’s still an integral part of the presentation. It keeps the show light and avoids it taking itself too seriously. That said, my most serious complaint about the show is that its humor is tied very strongly to 21st century pop-culture references. In a show set in the 24th century that is pretty decent at its science fiction, it feels a little jarring. It’s as though me and all my friends were experts in the 1600s and only read books and watched plays from that era. Okay, as an avowed Steampunk there is, perhaps, some feeling of truth in this portrayal, but I think you get what I mean!

I find I don’t always agree with the positions Seth MacFarlane and the producers present in the show, but that’s fine. He presents them in a thoughtful way that doesn’t put me off, which allows me to evaluate my own positions. In fact, he doesn’t always give us easy answers at the end of an episode or imply that what the crew did was the best choice. In this way, The Orville really does what science fiction does best: help us look at our own time with a critical eye.

As it turns out, I don’t have cable. I gave it up as an unneeded luxury back in 2001. I decided to buy the first season of The Orville on iTunes after watching those episodes that were available for free on Fox’s website. I will note that I still haven’t watched Star Trek: Discovery. Here’s the key difference: Fox allowed me to sample some episodes for free (albeit with commercials), and then gave me a means to subscribe to the series for a reasonable cost. CBS All Access, where Discovery runs will only allow me to subscribe to the channel and won’t even let me sample the series without a subscription that includes a whole lot of content I really don’t want. That’s why I gave up cable back in 2001!

I’m currently on Patreon raising funds for my collection of space pirate stories, Firebrandt’s Legacy. Like The Orville, I endeavor to mix some light-hearted humor with good science fiction to provide an entertaining mix. You can read the first story in the collection with absolutely no commitment right here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/chapter-one-for-14391922. If you like what you read, you can subscribe for any amount you like at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. In exchange for your patronage, you get to see each story in the collection as it’s written or reedited. I share behind the scenes information about the stories, and I’ll give you a “thank you” in the finished book.