Weighing Planets

At this month’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the team developing the NEID spectrograph at Kitt Peak National Observatory announced the instrument’s first light and released a great, processed image of the first spectrum that illustrates much of what I’ve talked about when giving behind-scenes-glimpses of the work. This is a spectrum of 51 Pegasi, which happens to have been the first star discovered to have an exoplanet back in 1995.

Credit: Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson/Princeton University/Penn State/NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/KPNO/AURA

The rainbow in the image above shows light from the star 51 Pegasi spread out by the spectrograph. To the left, you see the spectrum magnified so you can see more details. In particular, you see dark lines bisecting the rainbow in different places. These lines are caused when elements in the star’s atmosphere absorbs a little bit of the light. The dots above the lines come from a “calibration” image. They serve as a road map to tell you where you are in the spectrum. When a planet pulls the star toward us, those dark lines move a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum (to the left in the image above). When the planet goes behind the star, those lines move a little toward the red end of the spectrum (to the right, in the image above).

What’s cool about this kind of measurement is that how far the planet moves those lines is directly related to how massive the planet is. If you measure the line movement precisely, you can measure how much the planet weighs. If you then use another telescope and take images of the star and watch for the planet to cross in front of the star, you can measure how much the planet makes the star’s light decrease. That tells you the diameter of the planet. With the diameter and the mass, you can calculate the density, which tells you whether you’re looking at a gas giant, a rocky world, a water world, or an ice giant world.

What’s more, I was on-hand when that first image was taken. We celebrated by pulling out a bottle of sparkling cider and toasting the instrument’s success. Afterwards, we got back to work characterizing and testing the instrument’s behavior. As you can tell from the image below, we have lots of people in the control room on these commissioning nights!

This past week has been especially fun as a science fiction writer and long time fan. We’ve been starting our nights by observing the star Tau Ceti, which appears in many science fiction novels, movies, and TV series. Among the notable novels where Tau Ceti appears are such classics as Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, Robert A. Heinlein’s Time for the Stars, and Samuel R. Delaney’s Empire Star. In Star Trek, Tau Ceti is known as the home of the doomed cargo ship, Kobayashi Maru. The system is the home of the planet Sea of the Morningstar in Bodacious Space Pirates, a wonderful anime series.

In fact, the star itself is very similar to the sun. It has a similar spectral type and a mass about 0.78 times the mass of the sun. It has four candidate planets in orbit and it’s a little less than 12 light years away, so it seems conceivable these are planet humans could eventually visit. I even gave it a cameo in the new, upcoming edition of my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro.

Captain Pike's Discovery

By coincidence, actor Ethan Peck visited Kitt Peak National Observatory the week Star Trek: Discovery’s second season was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. I enjoyed the first season enough, I had already planned to watch the second second when I could get it on disk. Meeting the actor who played Spock in the series provided even more motivation. When I finished my shift at the observatory, I stopped in Tucson and picked up a copy of the season on Blu-Ray. I finished watching the season earlier this week.

Season one ended on a cliffhanger. The Starship Discovery encountered a badly damaged Starship Enterprise. When the second season opens, Captain Christopher Pike beams over to the Discovery and announces that he’s been given temporary command so that he can investigate the appearance of seven mysterious red signals around the galaxy while the Enterprise continues to dock for repairs. We soon learn that Pike’s science officer, Mr. Spock, has committed himself to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Spock’s adopted sister, Michael Burnham, is the series protagonist and serves as Discovery’s science officer.

Soon after the season begins, Spock leaves the psychiatric hospital and goes on the run. He’s accused of killing his doctors and the Discovery goes after him. The ship is then stopped in its tracks by an ancient artificial intelligence at the end of its operational life. They end up downloading all of the AI’s data into their computers. At this point, Section 31, a covert operations division of Starfleet takes a strong interest both in the ancient data and in Spock. Saying much more about the plot will get into spoiler territory, but we do end up with a season of political intrigue and personal drama.

As a long-time Star Trek fan, the most satisfying aspect of this season was getting to know Captain Christopher Pike. Way back when there was only one Star Trek TV series, he appeared in one episode as the grievously wounded former captain of the Enterprise. During the episode called “The Menagerie,” Mr. Spock hijacks the ship to take his former captain to the mysterious world Talos IV. In the process we learn about the first time Pike visited Talos IV. During the episode we learn that Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, is conflicted about command. He regrets ordering his crew into dangerous situations and considers a new career.

In the 2009, Star Trek film, we see Captain Pike again. This time he’s played by Bruce Greenwood. The movie portrays Pike as something of a cool father figure. Anson Mount, who plays Captain Pike in Star Trek: Discovery, bridges these two portrayals and shows us a captain who cares deeply about his crew and is willing to sacrifice himself for others. Ethan Peck does a great job of playing a young Lieutenant Spock dealing with inner demons. In the process, we get a good sense of why he was loyal enough to Captain Pike to risk a court martial to help his mentor in the original series. We also see how Spock and Burnham influenced each other growing up and we see a fun brother/sister dynamic between the two characters.

The second season of Discovery includes a lot of action, which I enjoyed and I was glad to get to know the series’ regular characters better. The season-long arc format continues to suit Star Trek. That said, aside from our encounter with the ancient AI, we don’t seem to “explore new worlds” and “seek out new life and new civilizations” as much as we did in the original series or even Star Trek: The Next Generation. That said, the season’s end did set us up to go “where no one has gone before.” At the end of the season, we got a nice taste of Captain Pike’s Enterprise. I think it would be a lot of fun if we saw a spin-off series that gave us more of Captain Pike and Mr. Spock’s adventures before the more famous five-year mission.

Stars, Galaxies, and Fiber Optics

The first time I remember learning about fiber optics was in a behind-the-scenes article published in 1980 or so about the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The article talked about how they got light to all the buttons on the bridge set and showed them illuminated with bundles of optical fiber. Nowadays, as I’ve mentioned in several earlier posts, I work with instruments that use optical fiber to carry light collected by each of the telescopes I work with to the instrumentation where its analyzed.

On the telescope side, those fibers are attached to an optical assembly that must be placed at just the right spot to catch focused light. If the star or galaxy is out of focus, not all the light goes down the optical fiber. We also have guider cameras that work to keep the object precisely aligned on the fiber so all the light gets to the spectrograph. It’s a lot of complex hardware to work right to precisely measure the the redshift of distant galaxies or look at a star and determine whether or not it has planets in orbit. This past week, we’ve been commissioning both the DESI spectrograph at the Mayall 4-meter and the NEID spectrograph at the WIYN 3.5-meter. One of the most important milestones is to get light from the object you want to measure to the spectrograph and see if you get the flux you expect. Here’s the NEID team at WIYN looking at early test results.

Yes, light leaves a star dozens of light years away, enters our telescope, goes down the optical fiber and is photographed with the spectroscope, then all that data can be viewed and analyzed on a laptop computer. When I filmed the trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt a couple of years ago, I was asked why we didn’t use a room full of fancy computers and monitors. We just had a couple of computers, one of which was a laptop. The reason is that I’ve seen a lot of control rooms where simple computers are the only ones present!

As you can imagine, it’s quite a relief to see all the work pay off in a spectrum that shows the flux level you expect. All of this is pretty exciting stuff and, as it turns out, my birthday fell during this past week’s tests. Seeing NEID as it nears readiness for scientific use is pretty exciting in its own right, but we had another surprise on the day of my birthday. Ethan Peck, who plays Spock on Star Trek Discovery, was on a road trip and decided to visit the observatory. A tour was arranged and he spent the beginning of the night at the WIYN telescope. For me, it was quite a thrill to have Spock, of all people, wish me a happy birthday! He brought a Polaroid camera with him and we snapped a photo of us standing by my control station. Here we are at WIYN. Ethan Peck is in the center (in white) and I’m to the left.

Meanwhile, across the mountain at the Mayall 4-meter, commissioning has continued on the DESI instrument. The instrument had its official “first light” a couple of weeks ago and a wonderful image was released that, I think, really illustrates the power of DESI.

Image credit: DESI Collaboration, Legacy Surveys; NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/NSF/AURA

Here you see an image of all 5000 DESI fibers superimposed on the sky. At the bottom of the fiber array is M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Below that is a view of the spectrum from just one of the 5000 fibers showing the light from that little piece of the galaxy. In it, you can see the lines labeled that denote the presence of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and even sulfur. Now remember that each fiber in that picture gives the same kind of data for the piece of sky its on. You can read the full press release about DESI’s first light at: https://nationalastro.org/news/desis-5000-eyes-open-as-kitt-peak-telescope-prepares-to-map-space-and-time/

All of the robotic positioners moving those fibers at the top of the Mayall telescope get hot and there’s a chiller system to keep them cool. This week, that chiller system will be automated, but last week, we had to monitor it by eye and it requires a person to turn the system on and off by hand. The person doing that remarked how spooky it is to be in the depths of the Mayall with all the lights out and remarked how she kept looking over her shoulder, wondering if someone was there. This is another aspect of my job that definitely helped to inspire The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel and see the trailer I mentioned earlier at http://www.davidleesummers/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

Fan Fiction?

I’ve often heard the Japanese word doujinshi translated as “fan fiction.” So, I found it interesting to discover that Seven Seas Entertainment licensed two collections of Dance in the Vampire Bund doujinshi and translated them into English. Perhaps a better translation of the word doujinshi is “stories from a specific interest group published for that group.” As it turns out, the Vampire Bund doujinshi consist of manga drawn by Nozumu Tamaki, creator of Dance in the Vampire Bund along with stories he supervised created by friends. The originals were self-published by Tamaki and sold at the semi-annual Comic Market (or Comiket) conventions in Japan.

To me, it says a lot about a writer’s world building when the world is rich enough to support stories beyond those told in a given book or series. The first fan fiction I ever encountered was set in the Star Trek universe and my earliest stories were Star Trek stories. Even at a young age, I wanted to see what happened on other starships besides the Enterprise, or what people outside of Starfleet did. Since then, Pocket Books has published entire books using those ideas and Paramount has even done entire series on similar premises.

Dance in the Vampire Bund is a series that appeals to be because it presents a rich world where vampires have made themselves public and the queen of the vampires, Mina Tepes, has set up a home for vampire kind near Tokyo. The story is full of the political machinations among the vampire houses and the mysteries of the origins of the vampire kind. The two doujinshi published by Seven Seas entertainment are called Dance in the Vampire Bund: Forgotten Tales, consisting mostly of manga by Nozumu Tamaki, and Dance in the Vampire Bund: Secret Chronicles, consisting mostly of short stories and novellas introducing characters who live in this world, but aren’t necessarily involved in the main story line.

Many of the Vampire Bund doujinshi’s manga show the main characters in quiet moments between the main action of the series. The short stories introduce many great characters such as Dr. Saji, a vampire dentist who solves mysteries and Lazaro Spallanzani who fancies himself a vampire gourmet who wants to make blood more interesting and palatable to the vampires. We also get stories that explore important events in the history of the vampire bund.

The books also include behind the scene trivia and information about inspirations. I noticed that Mr. Tamaki uses titles from a number of vampire novels and stories and I’ve long been curious whether his more recent “Scarlet Order” series was somehow named for my own Scarlet Order series. Thanks to the power of Twitter (which is explored in a humorous chapter in the doujinshi) and some Japanese help from my daughter, I was able to ask him. As it turns out, he didn’t name his books after mine, but we had much the same idea, using “Scarlet Order” as a metaphor for the bloody order of vampires. I did find it cool to reach across the ocean and communicate with an artist whose work I admire.

I find this idea of collaborators exploring a fictional world in depth fascinating. In many ways, these doujinshi read like “shared world” anthologies here in the United States, which can be fun. I’ve even written in a couple of shared worlds. My novella Revolution of Air and Rust is set in Bob Vardeman’s Empires of Steam and Rust steampunk world, plus I have a story in J Alan Erwine’s Taurin Tales, set on a world he created. I love seeing what happens when artists interpret my characters for book covers or magazine illustrations. These vampire bund doujinshi take the idea of the shared world anthology and expand it further. It would be fun to see more officially translated doujinshi and it would be fun to see more expanded worlds explored by writers and artists alike in the English-speaking world.

BraveStarr

Earlier this month, at the Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention, I was on a panel called “Space Cowboys” where we explored the title subject. In the panel, I suggested that the TV series BraveStarr was perhaps the purest expression of the idea of the space cowboy.

BraveStarr was Filmation Studios’ last fully developed series to reach the airwaves. I grew up watching Filmation series. Among my favorites were Star Trek: The Animated Series and Flash Gordon. Both respected the source material and presented it accurately within the limits imposed by television executives at the time the series were produced. BraveStarr was an original project that came out during my graduate school years. I remember catching some episodes after a long day of classes while eating a hasty dinner and getting ready for a night of homework.

BraveStarr tells the story of two factions on a planet dubbed New Texas who battle for control of a rare mineral called kerium, which can be refined as a fuel. One faction was composed of legitimate settlers attempting to stake their claims and mine the mineral legally. The other was controlled by an alien creature who seems like a hybrid between a bull and a dragon named Stampede. Stampede wants to run the settlers off and take all the kerium for himself. In the middle of the two factions are the planet’s natives, the Ewok-like Prairie People.

The townspeople petition the Galactic Marshal’s Service to send them a team of officers to bring law and order to New Texas. They send Marshal BraveStarr and Judge JB McBride. In a nifty subversion of western tropes, Marshal BraveStarr is a handsome Native American and Judge McBride is a Scottish woman with a temper. Over the course of the series there’s much tension between the two, both romantic and professional. It’s never a foregone conclusion that the two are “meant” for each other, which is a nice touch in a cartoon from the 1980s.

Another way 80s tropes are subverted is with the Prairie People. They are drawn as cute, cuddly creatures and they have annoying, squeaky voices. In many cartoons of the period, characters in the show would love them and the audience would wonder why. In BraveStarr, most of the townspeople hate the annoying creatures, even though they’re among the most technically competent people on the planet, which in itself is a subversion of tropes. These are no cute primitives. The Prairie People become a great way for the series to explore issues of bias and prejudice.

Perhaps my favorite character on the show is Thirty-Thirty. He’s an alien/cyborg who resembles a terrestrial horse. He fills the good, tough-guy role in this series and often the character with the most “horse sense.” Sometimes he runs along as a horse and sometimes he’s bepedal and packs a big gun he calls Sarah Jane. I’ve often wondered if that’s a tribute to Doctor Who. Marshal BraveStarr also has a mentor, a Native American called Shaman who has magical powers and has imbued BraveStarr with some of those gifts.

As I understand, Filmation wanted to capitalize on the success of their earlier hits, He-Man and She-Ra. As in those shows, our heroes face off against a veritable rogues gallery. Stampede’s lieutenant is a zombie-like cowboy named Tex Hex. It seems to me that Hex likes to shop as the same store as another favorite animated hero of mine, Captain Harlock. Around them are an assortment of bad robots and aliens all looking to make a quick buck.

I recently purchased the DVD set shown above called “The Best of BraveStarr.” It includes the movie that was meant as the introduction to the series plus the five best episodes as selected by fans. I highly recommend the film. While silly at times, it also includes many loving tributes to classic western films along with classic science fiction. I especially love the ship that BraveStarr and JB travel to New Texas aboard. It feels like the ship Captain Nemo would use if he traveled space. There are some good tense moments in the movie and it avoids getting too preachy. I also enjoyed the romantic tension between BraveStarr and JB in the movie.

The entire 65-episode series is also available on DVD, but unless you’re a die-hard fan, the five episodes on the “Best of” disk might suffice, especially since one 80’s trope the series did not avoid was the “moral of the episode” speech at the end. What’s more, the complete series set does not include the film, which would be a shame to miss.

I can tell elements of this series seeped into my graduate student haze. It’s one of the places where I got the idea that I’d like to expand on the idea of the “space western” which I did in my own novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. You can see my take on space cowboys by subscribing to my Patreon page at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Among other things, my Patreon also supports this blog and one of my goals is to give visitors to this blog an ad-free experience. If you have an extra dollar per month, I hope you’ll help me out and you can get some great stories as well!

Discovery

At long last, the first season of Star Trek: Discovery has been released on DVD, BluRay, and iTunes. As a result, I was finally able to watch the season. That said, I should note that nothing actually prevented me from subscribing to CBS All-Access to watch the show there before it came out on home media. In fact, a few weeks ago, I gave in and subscribed for the trial period just to check it out. What I learned was that even when I viewed CBS All-Access from the highest speed internet I had available, I still experienced pauses and video glitches that detracted from the viewing experience. Also, as I suspected, I didn’t find enough available on CBS All-Access to feel compelled to stick with the service. I decided I’m content to wait a year for the series to appear on home media.

As for the series itself, I enjoyed it … mostly. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up as a Star Trek fan. I would run home from school and anxiously turn on the TV to catch episodes of the original series. Star Trek was, in many ways, the series that’s responsible for the start of my writing career. This new incarnation of Star Trek is set about a decade before the original series and the first season tells the story of the Federation’s war with the Klingon Empire. The story is told from the point of view of Michael Burnham, who starts out as first officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou. In an attempt to stave off war, she commits an act of mutiny and ultimately ends up being recruited by Captain Lorca of the Starship Discovery to help in the war effort. It turns out that the Discovery has a special new type of drive that utilizes a biophysical network to transport it almost instantaneously from one place to another. Over the course of the series, we get to see plenty of Klingon politics, the return of original series villain Harry Mudd, and a return to the Mirror Universe where humans have formed a tyrannical empire.

I liked how the series used the Klingons to explore issues of cultural assimilation and appropriation. In the original series, Harry Mudd was something of a comic foil for Captain Kirk. In the new series Rain Wilson managed to give Mudd a decidedly dark and sinister twist. I thought the deeper exploration of the mirror universe was pretty cool. I enjoyed all the actors and was especially pleased to see the navigator and helmsman of Discovery both played by women. I felt the season-long story arc suited Star Trek. I also really liked the almost “lower decks” approach to the show where we see the action through the eyes of people who are not the most senior officers. What’s more, this series improved on Star Trek: The Next Generation where for all their high-minded talk of equality, the senior officers often took an almost elitist approach to their juniors.

My main problem with the series is the so-called spore drive. While I don’t have an intrinsic problem with the idea of a biophysical network that spans the universe and perhaps even bridges universes, I wasn’t so keen on the idea that it would provide an almost magical way of letting you move instantly between two quite distant points. Also, while I liked the season-long story arc, I felt it wrapped up just a little too neatly in the final episode and the solution relied on the Klingon homeworld being constructed in a way that seems inconsistent with our understanding of planetary geology.

Those issues noted, I liked it enough that I’ll almost certainly be back for season two … when it comes out on home media.

As I mentioned earlier, Star Trek was responsible for the start of my writing career. My first, albeit unpublished, novel was set between the end of the original series and the first movie. When I learned that it was unlikely that I could publish that novel because I was a young, untested writer, I created the starship Legacy and Captain Ellison Firebrandt. Because Firebrandt is a privateer, he ended up being quite a bit different than Captain Kirk. Monday is the official release day for my latest book set in this universe, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The ebook is available right now for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. I can’t quite control the release date for the print edition to the same degree as the ebook, but I expect it to be available by Monday. The Amazon link should indicate when it’s live.

Star Trek: Phase II

A few days ago, I came across a listing on the Eaglemoss website for a replica of the Starship Enterprise based on the design that would have been used in the television series Star Trek: Phase II.  This series has fascinated me since I first heard about it right around the time I first heard about Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In fact, the first poster for the movie I had seen featured the Phase II Enterprise. I decided I needed one for my collection.

I remember picking up a magazine sometime in 1978 announcing the forthcoming movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As a young Star Trek fan, this was exciting news indeed. The article also mentioned a planned television series called Star Trek II was on hold.  Apparently the sets and models for Star Trek II would be upgraded and used for the new movie. The article, as I recall, expressed some hope that if the movie proved a success, Paramount would move ahead with the series. This was like a dream come true. A new Star Trek movie and series.

As time went on, I heard less and less about the new series. I didn’t really get the story about what happened until I read Susan Sackett’s The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture a year or so after the movie came out. Even then, that book only contained tantalizing hints. Essentially, it revealed that soon after the cancellation of the original series, Gene Roddenberry had been approached to develop some new version of the series. The first culmination was the animated series. After that, a movie was developed but the script was ultimately rejected. Finally a TV series—Star Trek II or Star Trek: Phase II—was given the green light for development. It reached the point that they had signed most of the original cast and they were about to begin shooting when suddenly Star Wars came out and Paramount decided to turn the pilot script into a movie.

Susan Sackett gave a little more detail than this broad outline in her book, but not much. I finally located a book that gave much more detail about how the series started and the circumstances that caused it to go from being a series to a move. This book was Star Trek: Phase II, The Lost Series by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, who at the time they wrote the book were respected novelists who had done a couple of Star Trek novels, but would go on to be producers of Star Trek: Enterprise.

The book is really quite the treasure trove, and not just for the Star Trek fan curious about the Star Trek series that never happened. If you’re interested in developing stories for the screen, this book includes Alan Dean Foster’s treatment for the pilot episode, “In Thy Image” along with Harold Livingston’s complete first draft script. These would ultimately be modified to become Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What’s more, there’s also the complete screenplay for an episode called “The Child” which ultimately was rewritten as a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn’t have the best reputation, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie. Of course, it becomes clear from the Reeves-Stevens’ book that much of the problem stems from the fact that it is the pilot episode of a TV series. It’s not supposed to leave you sitting on the edge of your seat. It’s supposed to introduce you to characters and settings who will leave you sitting on the edge of your seat in future episodes. Susan Sackett’s book made clear that it was a pilot episode further watered down to be palatable to network executives and take as few chances as possible. That said, while I think Harold Livingston’s first draft script has better elements than the movie, the ending of the movie is much stronger than the one he first wrote.

Unfortunately, Star Trek: Phase II The Lost Series is now out of print. I had to buy a used copy. If you’re at all interested in Star Trek or writing for the screen, I highly recommend it for its candid look behind the scenes of the screenwriting process. I’m finding it very helpful in a project I’m working on, but can’t talk about yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to say more soon about that project, but in the meantime, this is a good excuse to once again share the short film whose screenplay I wrote. Enjoy!

If you like this clip, you can read the full story in my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N5EH8QP/