NEID – A New Way of Seeing Exoplanets

Last week, I talked a little about the work we’re doing refitting the Mayall 4-meter Telescope for the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument. However, it’s not the only construction going on at Kitt Peak. The WIYN 3.5-meter telescope, which I also work with, is getting a new spectrograph installed called NEID. Deploying NEID doesn’t require a full telescope refit like deploying DESI, but there’s still quite a bit of work happening in the building.

Most of the work right now is going into building a new bench spectrograph room. NEID is an acronym for “NN-explore Exoplanet Investigations with Dopler spectroscopy”. The word “neid” is also the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.” An appropriate choice, given Kitt Peak’s location on the Tohono O’Odham Nation in Southern Arizona. The goal of NEID is to provide the astronomical community with a state-of-the-art Doppler spectrograph to investigate exoplanets around nearby stars.

The way this will work is that an optical fiber assembly will be mounted to the telescope itself at the port in the photo to the right with the sign on it. That optical fiber will carry the light from the star to the new bench spectrograph downstairs where it will be spread out, like a rainbow. The reason for doing this is not to see a pretty rainbow, but to see dark lines interspersed through the rainbow. Those dark lines are like the star’s chemical fingerprint.

Now, here’s the fun part. When a planet moves around the star, it drags the star just a tiny amount toward the Earth which causes that spectral fingerprint to shift a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum. When the planet passes behind the star, it drags it away from the Earth and moves the spectral fingerprint toward the red end of the spectrum. Looking for this shift is the “Doppler” approach to finding planets that NEID will employ.

In addition to discovering new planets, NEID will be used to follow up observations by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and will help to determine masses and densities for planets TESS discovers. By the way, the NN-Explore that’s part of NEID’s acronym stands for NASA-NSF-EXoPLanet Observational REsearch. The current plan is to begin commissioning the instrument this fall and for regular observations to commence in 2019.

Being part of on-going research into planets around other stars is what inspired Dr. Steve Howell of NASA’s Ames Spaceflight Center and I to invite science fiction writers to imagine what these planets around other stars might be like. The results were our two anthologies, A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. You can learn more about the anthologies by clicking on their titles.

Once NEID goes online and starts making discoveries, Steve and I may have to “see” into the future and collect a third anthology. This time, including stories about planets discovered by a telescope on a mountaintop in Arizona’s Tohono O’Odham Nation.

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Refitting the Mayall: Teardown

I was in 8th grade when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out. One of the things that fascinated me in that movie was the refit of the Starship Enterprise. I was captivated by how the ship looked at once much the same and yet completely different. It looked sleeker and more powerful and familiar space on the ship such as the bridge, sickbay, and the transporter room had all been updated. I’m getting to experience something much like the Enterprise refit in real life. In this case, I’m involved in refitting the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Like the Starship Enterprise, the Mayall has a forty-five year history of discovery. Originally built to use photographic plates, the telescope has played an important role in such discoveries as establishing the role of dark matter in the Universe from measurements of galaxy rotation, and determining the scale and structure of the Universe. Over the years, new instrumentation has been added to the telescope including advanced digital cameras and spectrographs.

The purpose of the refit is to install a new instrument called DESI, which stands for Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. 5000 optical fibers will be installed at the telescope’s prime focus (the top end of the telescope) and run to cameras in another room. The goal is to observe tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a three-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years.

In order to achieve this goal, the entire top end of the telescope has to be replaced and much of the control software and electronics are being redone so that it’s truly state of the art. To achieve this goal, we literally have to gut the telescope and install new components from the inside out. During my most recent shifts at the telescope, I’ve been involved in just that. In the photo to the right, you can see that the bottom of the telescope is missing and replaced with scaffolding. That’s because the large 4-meter mirror is out for recoating. Also, all the optics are missing from the secondary mirror assembly at the top of the telescope. Ultimately, that will be removed completely and replaced with a new secondary ring. The men in the photo are removing a counterweight assembly used to precisely balance the telescope when instruments are added and removed. Electrical panels are open on the side of the telescope where control cabling going back to the photographic days will be removed and replaced with new control cabling. Modern electronics mean the telescope will have about 10% of the cables as it did when originally built!

The refit has also allowed me a rare opportunity to see parts of the telescope I’ve never been to before, even after operating it for some thirteen years. Earlier this week I got to help the electronics technicians work on some cabling in the “horseshoe.” That’s the big, blue horseshoe-shaped mount you see in the photos above. We actually ended up working down in the broad, blue, oval-shaped tube you see in the photo just above. I dubbed it the sinking submarine, because it’s a cramped space and we were standing at a 32-degree angle relative to the ground!

It’s going to be exciting to watch the telescope take shape again after the teardown process. New parts will be arriving in the coming months. A large crane will be deployed outside the 4-meter to lift out the old secondary ring and bring in the new one. The plan is to be back on sky to test components of the new instrument later this year. Once those tests are completed, other components will be finished, revised if needed and then installed. At that point, the Mayall’s new five-year mission to map the universe will begin.


Making Life Better Through Astronomy #SHaW

The first stirrings of what would become my interest in steampunk happened the year K.W. Jeter coined the word in a letter to Locus Magazine. During the summer of 1987, I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket, observing pulsating variable stars with an early twentieth-century telescope driven by a wind-up clock drive.

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I would go on to publish those results and present them at Harvard College Observatory. The idea that I could explore the universe with equipment built in the Victorian era stuck with me through the years and eventually blossomed when I started writing steampunk and weird western stories.

When I started attending steampunk events about five years ago, the maker culture reminded me of my introduction to astronomy. A few years before I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory, I joined an amateur astronomy club and was encouraged to build a Dobsonian telescopes. Designed by amateur astronomer John Dobson, these inexpensive, easy-to-build telescopes allow anyone with an interest to look at planets, stars, and beyond. This history combined with some extra motivation from one of my daughter’s science projects, led us to build a little steampunk Dobsonian telescope.

steampunk dobsonian

The telescope’s tube is, in fact, cardboard, but I gave it a coat of brass paint as a tribute to the Alvan Clarke and Sons telescopes I worked with on Nantucket and which drove so much science through the Victorian era. Having built this telescope, we have since taken it to steampunk and science fiction conventions where we’ve viewed planets and nebulae. Here’s my daughter setting up the telescope on the deck of the Queen Mary at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in 2015.

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I’ve also conducted workshops, using the steampunk telescope as an example of how easy and satisfying it is to build your own small telescope.

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It’s exciting when people look through a telescope like this and realize they can peer into moon craters, see the rings of Saturn, or the ghostly Orion Nebula. For them, science has left the textbook and become something they can access. There’s even more magic when people realize they can get those kinds of views with something they built themselves. If you’re interested in building a telescope like this for your own enjoyment, I wrote two posts that should help you get started and include links to more detailed information.

This post is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World. Visit the Airship Ambassador for more information and to visit more great posts on the topic!

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Laboring on Labor Day Weekend

No one can predict the weather. That’s even true for world-class astronomers and astrophysicists. As a result, the world’s premier facilities for collecting astronomical data, such as Kitt Peak National Observatory, are staffed year-round regardless of weekdays or holidays, so that we can take advantage of clear, stable skies whenever they occur. The only exception the observatory makes most years is Christmas and Christmas Eve. This year, one of my shifts happens to fall over Labor Day Weekend. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Kevin off the coast of Baja California is also pumping lots of moisture up here, so we’re spending some of our time waiting, watching and hoping the skies will clear.

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Of course, even with clouds, it’s not all waiting around, doing nothing until the skies clear. Over the course of the summer monsoon shutdown, a new Telescope Control System was installed at the Mayall 4-meter telescope. All indications are this new control system had made great improvements in the pointing and tracking performance of a 45-year old telescope, getting it ready for a new world-class spectrograph that will be installed over the coming years. Still, it means I get to learn how to drive the telescope all over again, and it’s best if I do that on these cloudy nights so I’m ready to go when the skies clear and astronomers go hunting those photons that may have taken thousands, millions, or even billions of years to reach us.

Keeping busy right now is good, since my editor dropped me a note at the beginning of the week, saying that she’s started editing my horror novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. So now I’m at that nail-biting stage of wondering which scenes she’ll like and which ones she’ll want rewritten. Her note mentioned that I better not give her nightmares. I can’t help but wonder if my horror novel fails to give her nightmares will I have have succeeded or failed! Seriously, though, these dark and stormy nights that we’re having at the observatory right now are not a little like the one described in the novel. Stay tuned for more news!

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Working Labor Day Weekend also means that I have the following weekend off, which means I get to display my books in Artist’s Alley at Las Cruces Comic Con. You can find more information about the event at: http://lascrucescomiccon.org/. I’ll be in the vendor hall all three days of the event. For all my friends in Las Cruces, I hope you’ll drop by the table and say “hi!”

HRM Steampunk Symposium 2015

I spent last weekend aboard the Queen Mary docked at Long Beach, California for the 2015 edition of Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium. We kicked things off by listening to the radio show edition of London, Where It All Began by David L. Drake and Katherine L. Morse on the drive over. The authors attended the symposium in their Drake and McTrowell personae, and their stories are a delight.

Reading at HRMSS

Once we arrived at the Queen Mary, I made a quick change and went right to my first event, where I read the first chapter of my latest novel, Lightning Wolves. Although it was early in the convention, some brave souls arrived and took in the story. After the reading, I attended a presentation on Victorian-era Voodoo in New Orleans by my friend Denise Dumars.

As day gave way to night, we set up two telescopes on the sun deck of the Queen Mary in hopes of viewing the Orion Nebula, Jupiter, and any other objects we could find through the bright lights and sea air of Long Beach. The little steampunk telescope I described last week proved to be a success. It was easy to use and we found objects right away. My 8-inch Celestron which I’ve had for thirty years proved a bit more challenging, but I finally figured out I mis-read the label on the eyepiece I selected and it was both one difficult to use with all the lights around and a narrower field of view than I thought. I moved to a wider field-of-view Plössl eyepiece and things went much more smoothly.

I rounded out the night by attending a magic show by the talented Aiden Sinclair. This show took the form of a séance to summon Jack the Ripper. Of course, Aiden is an illusionist and doesn’t claim to actually summon ghosts, but this was a small intimate group and we got to watch his work in detail. It was a wonderful show and I also had a chance to visit with friends such as Drake and McTrowell, long into the night.

Drake and McTrowell

The next day came much too soon. Kumie and I awoke and took books up to our merch table outside the dealer’s room, where we were delighted to spend the day next to Nathaniel Johnstone and Laura Tempest Zakroff’s table on one side and Gaslight Gathering’s table on the other. We had a wonderful day chatting with readers and other steampunks. That afternoon, I presented my “Mars, Across the Aether” talk where I told a tale of the red planet, its canals, Queen Victoria’s watercolor teacher and extraterrestrial signals detected by Nicola Tesla. Afterwards, we returned to the deck to set up the telescopes. Here you see me working alongside my youngest daughter.

HRMSS Telescopes

Once the viewing finished for the night, I made my way back to the main ballroom to catch the Nathaniel Johnstone Band. They were in great form and it was a delight to hear such favorite songs as “Snugglefish,” “Stone Woman,” and “Frog and Toad.”

Sunday morning saw a return to the merch table for a short time. Early in the afternoon, I promised to serve as second for Steampunk Gamera in a grudge match tea duel against Steampunk Godzilla.

HRMSS Dueling

For those unfamiliar with tea dueling, it is a competition which allows two people (or monsters) to settle their differences with a show of manners and decorum rather than through the use of arms. Girded with a cookie and cup of tea, the opponents each dunk their cookie into the tea for a five count. Once raised, the last one to eat their cookie without it crumbling is the winner. In the Gamera vrs. Godzilla tea duel, the seconds had to take the field as shown here. Godzilla’s second is the delightful Madame Askew.

After the tea dueling, I gave a presentation on building the steampunk telescope. Sadly, because of the long drive back to New Mexico, we then had to pack up and leave immediately afterward. The weekend was a delightful blur, but I hope to make it back again next year. My next convention will also be a foray back to the age of steam, Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona. Stay tuned for more details!

Steampunk Telescope

Back in November, I wrote a post that discussed building a telescope. The telescope worked great. The only problem was that without a mount, it was hard to point and keep the telescope on a target. This made it hard for multiple people to enjoy the view, or even for one person to look for more than a few seconds. To kick off this year, I built a simple mount for the telescope and this weekend, at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in Long Beach, California, I’ll be hosting viewings through the telescope and showing people how they can build one just like it.

steampunk dobsonian

The mount I built is basically a variation of one described at the 10-minute Astronomy Blog. Because my telescope is in a cardboard tube, I built a wooden box that fit snugly around the tube to hold the altitude bearings. Like the mount described in the 10-minute Astronomy Blog, my bearings are simply grated PVC end caps. I lined the wooden box with felt to snug the fit a bit more and avoid damaging the tube as I slid it in place. Allowing the altitude bearing box to be a pressure fit allows me to rotate the tube inside and it allows me to adjust the position of the telescope if I should add weight to one end or the other.

Another variation is that instead of building the ground board from scratch, my wife found a rotating TV stand at a thrift store for 99 cents. I simply put rubber feet on the bottom of my rocker box and set it on the TV stand.

Finally, I found that my elevation axis had a tendency to slip sideways, causing the telescope to slip out of the V-cuts. I solved this by adding melding plates to the outside of the V-cuts that keep the telescope from slipping sideways. I could possibly have also prevented this problem by making my rocker box a little narrower.

So, what makes this a “steampunk” telescope? First of all, it’s a Newtonian telescope very similar in design to the one Nathaniel Green, painting instructor to Queen Victoria, used to observe Mars in 1877. I painted the tube with brass spray paint to give it that old-fashioned brass tube look of nineteenth century telescope.

Although it gets dangerously close to the song “Just Glue Some Gears On It (And Call It Steampunk)”, I did glue some gears on my Dobsonian mount. I tried to evoke the idea of the clockworks that were used to drive old telescopes. What’s more, they make the melding plates looks more decorative than purely functional. I also added a steampunk cuckoo clock decal to the top of the mount. After all, time is very important to astronomy!

Verity-Telescope

In a sense, the sky’s the limit—literally! The cardboard tube and simple wooden mount allow you decorate your telescope in a myriad of splendid ways, so you can go stargazing in style! My only recommendation would be to keep lights to a minimum to keep your telescope functional. The stand and telescope are lightweight and easily transportable, making them good for taking out any time you want. And really, that’s the point of having a little telescope like this, so everyone can enjoy the wonders the sky has to offer.

Making a Telescope

One of my first forays into the world of astronomy happened when I was fourteen years old. I was at an age where people started wondering what I was going to do with my life and my dad had recently passed away. I went to a meeting of the Riverside Amateur Astronomers in California and went home with a twelve inch telescope mirror and a wooden tube to mount it in. My plan was to build a Newtonian telescope—a design pioneered by Isaac Newton, which has a large light-collecting mirror at the back of the telescope. In the front is a 45-degree mirror that directs the light to an eyepiece.

Illustration by Krishnavadela

Illustration by Krishnavadela

I really had no idea how to build a telescope, Newtonian or otherwise. I eventually was able to mount the mirror in the tube, but never proceeded further on the project. My mom bought me a small, commercial telescope. I built a mount for it with a neighbor’s help and I went on to enjoy the night sky. I eventually sold that first telescope mirror and tube to a friend who made a nice Newtonian telescope out of it.

Of course, I went on to a career in astronomy and have learned much more about telescopes. So, a couple of weeks ago when my daughter mentioned she was interested in a science fair project where she compared the performance of her refracting telescope to a comparable reflecting telescope, I thought this was a great opportunity to revisit the idea of building a Newtonian telescope.

This time, I deliberately went for a small telescope. I wanted the aperture to be the same size as my daughter’s refractor. telescope parts That meant an 80 millimeter primary mirror. I looked on eBay and found an 80mm primary mirror along with a flat diagonal secondary mirror for about $45. I went ahead and picked them up along with a rack and pinion focuser for a Newtonian telescope that cost about $17. I already had eyepieces. If you want to embark on the journey of making a telescope those are easily obtained from places like Orion Telescopes and Binoculars. Once the parts arrived, the only thing I needed to complete the telescope itself was a tube to mount it in. I thought about a couple of approaches, but decided the simplest was to mount the whole thing in a five-inch diameter mailing tube, which I could pick up at the local office supply store for about $7. You can see the complete set of parts to the left.

I faced two problems when I attempted to build a telescope when I was fourteen. First, I didn’t really have experience with tools. I was trying to figure out how to drill holes and saw boards with no one to really teach me. I’m lucky I didn’t cut off a finger! Second, I didn’t really understand the basics of how far apart to mount the telescope mirrors. The first problem was really the show-stopper all those years ago, because either the Riverside or San Bernardino Amateur Astronomers would have helped me figure out the second part. It turns out, figuring out the distances is perhaps the most important part, but it’s also very easy. You just need a few numbers to start:

  • The focal length of the primary mirror.
  • The distance from the center of the mirror to the edge of the tube.
  • The distance from the edge of the tube to your eyepiece (which you can get by putting the rack and pinion in the middle of its range and measuring the distance.)

When you buy a telescope mirror, the focal length is a number the seller should have. If not, there are assorted websites and YouTube videos that can tell you how to figure it out. measuring The focal length is the distance between the primary mirror and the place where you’ll form a focused image that you may view with your eyepiece. In essence, the focal length tells you how far apart to mount your primary and secondary mirror. A simple, good-enough way to get get that distance is to take the focal length and subtract the other two numbers above. Make sure the center of your secondary mirror is that far from the primary mirror. I started by making sure the secondary mirror was mounted level in the top of the tube. I drilled my holes with a Dremel tool. I then cut a hole even with the secondary mirror that allowed me to mount the rack-and-pinion focuser. Once that was in place, it was easy to get the measurements. I took it apart, mounted the primary in the right position and then moved on to the final step.

Once everything is mounted, you need to align the mirrors. In short, the primary mirror needs to be aimed straight up the tube, so it sees out. Also, the secondary needs be centered on the primary mirror. Finally, you need to make sure your rack-and-pinion focuser (and thus your eyepiece) is aimed directly at the secondary. Here’s a very good article about how to do just that: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-resources/how-to-align-your-newtonian-reflector-telescope/

finished telescope

The thing is, Newtonian telescopes are pretty forgiving. Don’t stress if you don’t get any part of this process perfect. In about 24 hours, of getting all the parts, we were out and looking at the night sky with our homemade telescope. I still need to build a mount, but even lose as it is, it’s a great little telescope for looking at planets or the moon.

By taking me back to one of my first forays into science—and SummersLightningWolves one I didn’t especially succeed at the first time—this project definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone and reminded me of Larissa Crimson’s journey in my steampunk novel Lightning Wolves. If you’d like some inspiration for some mad science, you should check it out at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords.