A High Tech New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is often a quiet affair for me. In a normal year, Kitt Peak National Observatory attempts to have telescopes pointed at the sky, doing science-related tasks on as many nights as possible. The only exceptions are closures for weather, engineering tasks, and we’re often closed on Christmas. Over the last decade, I’ve toasted the New Year several times at work with a nice cup of coffee. This year, proved a rare exception and I was able to ring in the New Year at home. In years past, New Year’s Eve at home has involved cooking up a big pot of a red chile, hominy, and pork stew called posole, then either playing games, working on puzzles, or watching movies until near midnight, then sharing a toast of sparkling cider with the family.

The posole still happened this year and, if I do say so myself, it was one of the best batches I’ve made in a long time. I credit that to my wife making stock for the base from some leftover pork bones we had in the freezer. The meat on those bones also became the meat for the stew. This is really the way posole is supposed to be made, but we often shortcut this step and cook the meat on the morning of New Year’s Eve.

Another thing that made this New Year’s Eve special was the opportunity to connect with numerous friends via video chat. On top of that, the band Abney Park performed a live streaming concert from their home studio in Seattle. I’ve seen advertisements for Abney Park’s New Year’s Eve concerts for several years now and I’ve always wanted to go. Among other things, one of their frequent venues for those concerts was quite close to the neighborhood where my brother used to live. So this was like a wish come true. What’s more, this concert came just a couple months before the tenth anniversary of seeing Abney Park play live the first time at Wild Wild West Con in 2011. Shortly before that, my family and I had seen a YouTube video of the band giving an impromptu performance of the title song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. When my youngest daughter met Captain Robert, she asked him if they could play it at the concert. He told her they hadn’t rehearsed it and didn’t have the music along, so they couldn’t. However, at the New Year’s Eve Concert, ten year’s later, with my daughter home from college and in the audience, Captain Robert and the band actually played Chitty Chitty Bang Bang live. It was a delight.

My daughters and a friend meeting Robert Brown and Nathaniel Johnstone at the first Wild Wild West Con

The other parties we attended were just as much fun, if for different reasons. I spent time with several college friends in one call. It was a relaxed time where we chatted casually as friends are wont. This party ended about 8pm and then we joined Madame Askew and her Temporal Entourage for their New Year’s Eve festivities where I connected with friends from all across the country and around the world. Author Karen Carlisle confirmed for us that the sun really did rise as expected on January 1 in Australia. If all goes well, I hope you will be able to purchase a new anthology this coming year with stories by me and Karen. Performing at the event was burlesque dancer Eve Riot. I will note, all the links so far in this post point to the Patreon pages for these amazing artists. I encourage you to visit their pages, learn more about them, and support them if you’re able to!

This has been such a difficult year for many people, but one thing I’m grateful for is the way people have found new ways to use technology to reach out and connect to one another across the globe. Even once the pandemic situation improves and we are able to gather again, I hope we don’t lose all of this ability. I’ve been able to attend events and connect with people I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to otherwise.

On the subject of remote chatter, there has been recent news of a strange radio signal from Proxima Centauri. It’s at a frequency not typically used by spacecraft. It disappeared when the Parkes Radio Telescope moved away from Proxima, then returned when it pointed in that direction again. There is no known astronomical phenomenon that broadcasts at that frequency. Also, there’s a habitable zone planet around Proxima Centauri. I’ve even imagined people living there in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. That said, there’s a good chance this is just an undiscovered natural phenomenon. Still, I find myself wondering if someone out there wants to get on our video chat action. If you want to follow this story, the Planetary Society has set up a page discussing the detection at: https://www.planetary.org/articles/aliens-at-proxima-centauri-a-new-radio-signal-raises-the-question.

The Bionic Woman

Today, my wife goes in for knee-replacement surgery. She essentially has no cartilage in either knee and walking has been quite painful for some time. To do the replacement, doctors have imaged both of her knees and are building custom implants. I’m told the surgery will only take about an hour and recovery time should be relatively fast.

All this brings to mind the 1977 TV series, The Bionic Woman, in which professional tennis player Jamie Sommers is seriously injured in a skydiving accident and has her legs and right arm replaced with mechanical prostheses that effectively give her the super powers of increased strength and speed. It doesn’t sound like Kumie will get super powers beyond those she already possesses, namely sending cancer packing a few years ago and putting up with me, among others.

What truly amazes me is how far medical technology has come in my lifetime. I gather the success rate of this kind of knee surgery is high. When I was a child, the only treatment for people with this kind of damage was pain management. There’s a good chance that if Kumie were born a few decades earlier, she would have been confined to a wheelchair in later life. At this point, there’s a good chance she’ll maintain full mobility for years to come.

By the same token, I’ve seen dramatic improvements in arthritis treatment since I was diagnosed in the early 1990s. At that time, I fully expected the arthritis to progress until I could no longer walk and possibly have serious problems using my hands. Medications developed in the later 2000s not only impeded arthritis, but seem to have sent it into remission. I’m now pain-free without the use of any medication.

Of course, we’re facing this major surgery at a time when the senate is debating federal funding for healthcare. As with most Americans, I’m following this debate with interest. I’m incredibly fortunate to work for a company that provides good health insurance. However, as an astronomer, whose long term job funding is always uncertain and as a writer, whose funding is even more uncertain, this debate takes on even more personal meaning.

As far as I’m concerned, it benefits a country to have a population in good health. I don’t mind the idea of paying an extra tax if it means doctors and researchers get paid, and everyone has access to the benefits of that research and reasonable medical care. It’s apparent the Affordable Care Act has problems. Like many Americans, I’m frustrated by the emotional tirades in Congress. The legitimate issues with the ACA need to be resolved through a thoughtful, careful examination of the system. I just hope our senators and representatives can grow up enough to do that. If not, I hope Americans will hold them accountable at the polls.

In the meantime, especially if you missed it when I first shared it, you can learn more about my wife and I by reading a special feature that appeared in our alumni magazine at: http://www.nmt.edu/images/stories/advancement_office/website/GoldPanSummer-S17.pdf. If you want to take Kumie’s admonition to “Buy Dave’s books” to heart, you can learn more about my fiction at http://www.davidleesummers.com. It’s the kind of thing that helps us save up for the proverbial rainy day, and given the way things are going, we may need it! (And besides, you’ll get some cool reading in the bargain.)

Arizona and NM STEM Resources for Kids

At Phoenix Comicon, I was on a panel called “Growing Up With Science.” Our goal was to suggest ways to keep kids—and particularly girls and minorities—interested in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. This post attempts to collect several of the suggested places around Arizona and New Mexico parents can take their kids to investigate these fields. The photo below is from the Phoenix Comicon photo collection and shows the panelists: Dean Frio, Martha Alice, Karen Knierman, David Lee Summers, and Aireona Raschke.


The categories below are presented roughly in the order we presented them during the panel.

General Education Resources

School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University “is training the next generation of explorers and citizen scientists.” They offer a number of field trips, teacher workshops and partnerships with local schools, exploring astronomy and earth sciences. For more information, visit: http://sese.asu.edu/outreach

Ask a Biologist is a program at Arizona State University where kids can ask questions, access age-appropriate science articles, and interact with activities and online games. http://askabiologist.asu.edu/

Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center. Museums and visits to science facilities are a great way to interest kids in science. Kitt Peak offers year round tours and even night programs where people can observe with docents expert at interpreting the night sky. Get more information at: http://www.noao.edu/outreach/kpvc/

Lowell Observatory is a center for astronomical research and works to bring the results of that research to the general public. They have an outstanding visitor center in Flagstaff and terrific online resources at: http://lowell.edu/

Biosphere 2 serves as a center for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe. They offer guided tours to individuals and schools, plus they also offer teacher training programs. Learn more at: http://b2science.org/

Asombro Institute for Science Education works to foster an understanding of the Chihuahuan Desert through programs given to schools in Southern New Mexico and West Texas, plus programs offered at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park. Learn more at: http://www.asombro.org/

Experiences and Camps

Astronomy Camp is held each year at Kitt Peak National Observatory and run by Dr. Don McCarthy of the University of Arizona. It gives students hands on experiences in both astronomy and engineering. More information at: http://astronomycamp.org

MathMovesU is a program hosted by Raytheon which has a number of on-line activities and provides scholarships so kids can attend math and science events. http://www.mathmovesu.com/

Phoenix Zoo Camp gives kids an opportunity to spend time during summer and winter breaks at the zoo engaged in activities learning about nature and animals. More information at: http://phoenixzoo.org/camps-programs/camp-zoo/

Young Women in Computing is a camp hosted by the computer science department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. In addition to the camp itself, they host after school programs, contests, and teacher-program collaborations. They work not only with young women, but young men as well. Get more information at: https://sites.google.com/site/ywicnm/

Citizen Science Projects

Citizen science projects are projects where you can contribute to projects and discoveries. Generally, you are given an on-line tutorial for the project then taken to a set of data that requires analysis. This is a great way for both adults and kids to contribute to real, on-going science projects.

Zooniverse is a literal clearing house of citizen science projects that can be done from your home computer with an internet connection. The projects range from astronomy, to biology, to climate. Find a project and get involved at: www.zooniverse.org

Amazing Space uses the Hubble Space Telescope’s discoveries to inspire and educate about the wonders of our universe. http://amazing-space.stsci.edu/

Gila Monsters at Saguaro National Park is a program where people can report Gila Monster sightings in and around Saguaro National Park and help preserve these amazing animals. http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/gila-monsters-at-saguaro-national-park

McDowell Mountains Citizen Science Program is the steward program that supports the McDowell Sonoran Field Institute by training and deploying volunteers on the various research projects. The program offers opportunities to Conservancy stewards as well as students and community volunteers. Get details at: http://www.mcdowellsonoran.org/content/pages/citizenScienceProgram#sthash.C1Eu2uUO.tvY4etUl.dpuf

Steering Solar Sails

Deby Fredericks asked how to steer a solar sail. The short answer is you do so by turning the sails just like a sailboat. In some solar sail designs, the sails simply rotate on their masts. This was the design I went for in my novel, The Solar Sea. Below is an illustration of the solar sail Aristarchus from the novel by Laura Givens. Each of those sail petals can rotate on its mast 360 degrees. If they face the sun full on, they get the full benefit of light pressure. If you turn them 45 degrees, you’ll alter the course of the ship. If you turn them 90 degrees from the sunlight, you won’t get any acceleration.

Aristarchus Sail Array

Some solar sails like NASA’s forthcoming Sunjammer have little triangular extensions of the sails. Those are the parts that turn in that design. The idea is that induce a little roll to the craft, which allows the whole thing to turn.

Sunjammer Sail

Now, we can also look at the way a solar sail might accelerate out of an orbit. A good way to think about solar sailing is that it’s like sailing in water, but where gravity acts like a current and light pressure acts like wind. A body in orbit around a planet or other body is perpetually falling and an orbit is an ellipse.

solar sail orbit

In the case of a solar sail, if it turns its sails to face the sun when it’s at the top of the ellipse, it’ll get a little boost of acceleration away from the sun. Then if it turns its sails out of the sunlight as it comes around to the part of the orbit closest to the planet, it won’t slow down again. When it reaches the top of the orbit it can turn the sails toward the light again for another boost. In this way, each successive orbit gets a little higher and higher until your solar sail is where you want it, or it achieves escape velocity.

The Solar Sea

You can learn more about The Solar Sea at TheSolarSea.com. There you can see lots of Laura Givens’ cool concept art from the novel. For fans of The Pirates of Sufiro and its sequels, you can also get a look at the Rd’dyggians and the Titans. My novel The Solar Sea is available at:

Solar Sails in Science Fiction


As promising—and romantic—a technology as solar sails are, it’s perhaps not surprising that they have found their way into fiction numerous times. Perhaps the first mention of the idea of using light to propel a spacecraft is in Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. In Verne’s novel, a giant cannon is used to send a spacecraft to the moon. However, Verne writes that such a projectile has limited velocity. “Is it not evident, then, I ask you, that there will some day appear velocities far greater than these, of which light or electricity will probably be the mechanical agent?” asks Verne. The thing is, Jules Verne was right on top of the scientific achievements of his day. He knew that James Clerk Maxwell had recently discovered that light exerts a pressure on objects.

Lady Who Sailed

Compelling as this idea is, it seems that no one pursued it further until an engineer named Carl Wiley wrote an article for Astounding Science Fiction in 1951 about how solar sails could be built in orbit and used for space travel. The article was called “Clipper Ships in Space” and was written under the pseudonym Russell Saunders. This article influenced more than one science fiction writer. The first was Cordwainer Smith who published the story “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul” in Galaxy Magazine in 1960. The story was mostly about the romance of two characters, but it also does a fairly good job of describing a solar sail spaceship.

The next appearance of a solar sail in science fiction was in Pierre Boulle’s novel Planet of the Apes in 1963. To quote from the novel: “In those times, interplanetary travel was commonplace, though interstellar ventures were still an exception. Rocket ships would take the tourists to fabulous locations on Sirius or the finance people to the stock markets of Arcturus and Aldebaran. But Jinn and Phyllis, a wealthy and free couple, were known through the Cosmos to be young originals, with a bit of craziness, and they would cruise through the Universe just for the fun of it—with their sailcraft.” Boulle then goes on to describe the craft: “Their ship was a kind of sphere with a shell—the sail—made of amazingly thin material, and it would move through space, just pushed by the pressure of light beams.”

Boys Life Sunjammer

A year later, Arthur C. Clarke published the story “The Sunjammer” in Boy’s Life Magazine that told the story of seven solar sails racing from the Earth to the Moon. This story in particular captured many scientists’ imaginations and caused them to seriously ask the question of whether or not these kinds of craft could be developed. In fact, NASA’s first solar sail mission to deep space has been dubbed “Sunjammer” in Clarke’s honor. You can visit the project’s homepage at: sunjammermission.com

Light sails have continued to appear in science fiction since then. Notable appearances include the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine called “Explorers” and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. No doubt solar sails will continue to appear in science fiction. My own novel, The Solar Sea, about a solar sail spacecraft that’s used to explore the outer planets was published in 2009. You can read more about it at thesolarsea.com

Science and science fiction are closely intertwined with solar sails. In the middle of the nineteenth century, James Clerk Maxwell discovered that light exerted a pressure on objects. Soon after, Jules Verne posited that such a force could be used to move a spacecraft. In the 1950s an engineer published an article about light sails in a science fiction magazine and a few years later, science fiction writers were publishing stories about such craft. Now, scientists and engineers are working to turn the idea of solar sails into reality while science fiction writers continue to dream of sailing to distant planets and star systems.

The Solar Sea

Is there something about solar sails you’d like to know and I didn’t cover? Let me know in comments and I’ll see if I can find out for you and post next week. I’ve already been asked how to steer a solar sail. I’ll do my best to explain!

My novel The Solar Sea is available at:

Solar Sail Projects

Light pressure has been demonstrated as a force that can, indeed, move a spacecraft. Back in 1974, when Mariner 10 was running low on fuel, NASA utilized light pressure against its solar panels to adjust its trajectory. Although this was a limited demonstration, light sail technology holds sufficient promise that scientists around the world are trying to turn this science fictional idea into reality. Public and private teams in the United States, Japan, and Europe are all actively working on solar sail projects.


Although it’s not as heavily publicized as some projects, NASA has been on the forefront of light sail development. On November 19, 2010, they launched a solar sail “nanosatellite” called NanoSail-D. It was a 100-square-foot solar sail that was deployed from NASA’s FASTSAT Satellite on January 20, 2011. Four booms with sails deployed from a craft about the size of a lunchbox. The image above is an artist’s conception of the craft, but to learn more about NanoSail-D and to see photos of the sail during it’s 240-day voyage, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/smallsats/nanosaild.html

In the longer term, NASA is developing a somewhat larger prototype solar sail. This larger sail would have an area approximately 13,000 square feet with a payload of 110 pounds. This makes it about seven times larger than the largest solar sail ever deployed. While the NanoSail-D project was essentially a simple sheet of reflective material designed to test the concept of solar sailing, the larger solar sail would include four small steering sails to test maneuverability of the craft. Currently, this larger prototype sail is scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 in 2015. You can read more about this mission at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/tdm/solarsail/solarsail_overview.html


Perhaps the most prominent private group working to build a solar sail is the Planetary Society. They’re a non-profit organization in the United States dedicated to the support of space exploration. They attempted to launch a solar sail called Cosmos 1 back in 2005. Unfortunately, it was lost when the launch vehicle it was aboard—a Volna rocket launched from a Russian submarine—exploded on the way to orbit. The original craft looked like an octagonal mirror. Eight triangular sails surrounded a central hub. Each sail was mounted to the hub by a rotating mast. By changing the angle of the sails, the craft’s course could be adjusted. The updated project is called LightSail-1 and appears to be a much simpler design as shown in the photo at the top of the paragraph. For more information, visit: http://www.planetary.org/explore/projects/lightsail-solar-sailing/

Interest in solar sail technology isn’t limited to the United States. In 2011, the Japan Aeronautic Exploration Agency or JAXA successfully deployed a small solar sail called IKAROS (for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun). The test successfully demonstrated both sail deployment and the ability of a craft to fly by photon pressure. Later this decade, they hope to launch a probe to Jupiter that will be propelled by solar sails. An artist’s conception is shown below. You can learn more about the IKAROS mission, and see a cool gif of the sail in flight at: http://www.jspec.jaxa.jp/e/activity/ikaros.html

Japan Jupiter Mission

The European Space Agency has also been working on a prototype solar sail, but there is little information at this point about when they might try a flight. They appear to have a near-term project using solar sail nanosatellites to help remove debris from Earth orbit.

As we move toward the middle of the 21st century’s second decade, we find ourselves searching for “green” technologies that utilize the resources we have available as wisely as possible. Solar sails appear to be a promising, green technology that would allow humans to explore space wisely. Indeed, it is the only propulsion technology within our reach that could conceivably propel a spacecraft to near the speed of light.

The Solar Sea

In the next installment, I’ll look at solar sails in science fiction. In the meantime, you can learn more about my novel, The Solar Sea, which is set aboard a solar sail spacecraft at TheSolarSea.com. The novel is available at: