Finder Scopes

One of the things I like about working at Kitt Peak National Observatory is that my job has a lot of variety. I contribute to important science projects and I help with engineering that helps to achieve the observatory’s science goals. Sometimes I act as something of a councilor, commiserating with observers during inclement weather. I even get to employ my writing skills when documenting tasks for our operations manuals.

This past week, one project I helped with was testing a new finder scope for the 4-meter telescope. Finder scopes don’t often get a lot of attention, but they serve an important function. Telescopes often give you such an enhanced view of the sky that it’s difficult to know exactly where you’re pointed. A finder scope is simply a smaller telescope mounted to the bigger telescope that lets you see a wide swath of the sky and confirm that you’re looking where you think you should be. Even my 90mm telescope has a finder scope on it. It’s the little tiny telescope piggybacked on the bigger telescope.

Here’s a view of the finder scope mounted to the top of the 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. Note that it’s basically just a camera lens directing light into a little digital camera.

This will prove vitally important when we start using the DESI spectrograph on the 4-meter. With that instrument, we’ll have fibers directing most of the light to spectrographs instead of a direct view of the sky. We will have a guide camera, but if, for some reason, the telescope pointing is off, it may be hard to find where we are. Because of that, it’s nice to have a widefield view of the sky. The images taken with the finder scope won’t be the ones you see in most magazines, but still, we played a little while testing and took a nice photo of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31 and it’s companion, M110.

We also took an image of the Pleiades, which is a nearby open cluster visible with the naked eye. These are young stars with nebulosity still around them. Even with our small telescope, it only took 30 seconds to see some of the nebular clouds.

Speaking of variety, another job I did this week was help an astronomer monitor a Jupiter-sized planet as it transited its star. This planet had a rotational period of only 1.6 days and we monitored it with the WIYN telescope at the same time the Kepler Space Telescope monitored it. Having two telescopes monitoring it at the same time allows for scientists to confirm and double check results. The system we were watching is very much like system I wrote about in the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen. You can learn more about the book and find places to order at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Keplers-Dozen.html. The book gives a unique look at the types of worlds discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. My co-editor on the project was Dr. Steve B. Howell, head of the Astronomy and Astrobiology Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Advertisements

Research in Writing: Reality vs Perceptions

I don’t think any sensible person would question that a responsible writer should do their homework and research any facts that go into their writing, even if what they’re writing is fiction. However, over the years, I’ve learned that getting it right doesn’t always mean that the people reading the story will think you’ve gotten it right. The reason is that not all readers have done the homework and come to a story with a set of preconceived notions. If you violate those preconceived notions they may actually think you’ve made a mistake.

For example, I’m an astronomer who works with telescopes for a living. When I say that, I know a lot of people might picture this dude from a Bud Light commercial a few years back:

In fact, we don’t wear lab coats. We don’t spend all night standing at the back of a telescope. Telescopes have been using digital cameras, feeding pictures into computers since the 1980s. Even in the days when we did work at the telescope, you were more likely to find us wearing heavy coats and we’d be working in the dark all night long blasting loud music to try to keep ourselves awake. In fact, this is what the control room at the 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak looks like:

And you’ll notice there’s not a lab coat in sight. Why would there be? It’s not like we’re working with dangerous chemicals or anything.

I play with this very idea a bit in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt when gangsters from a Mexican cartel show up at the story’s observatory to track down a missing drug shipment. They come to the place with preconceived notions they gained from television, but learn that the real astronomers they meet aren’t much like what they believed.

I run into this dichotomy when writing weird westerns and steampunk. People think they know the history of the old west because stories like the Gunfight at OK Corral or the life of Billy the Kid have been told in numerous movies. Even I get caught off guard. A while back, I was watching Doctor Who’s version of the Gunfight at OK Corral and they introduced a character named Phin Clanton. From all the movies, I knew Ike Clanton and his brother Billy, but who the heck was Phin? Sure enough, I looked it up and Ike and Billy had a brother named Phineas who was not at the famous gunfight. In tribute to my newfound knowledge, I gave Phin a role in Lightning Wolves.

In the end, this raises something of a question. Is it better to write to the facts, as best as they can be known, or to write to people’s perceptions? My take on this is that you should absolutely do due diligence researching the facts. You’ll bring an air of authenticity to your work and you’ll likely be able to bring better and richer details to the table. However, you should also see if pop culture has addressed your topic and how it’s been portrayed. If the facts seem to contradict what you’re seeing in the more pop cultural references, you may want to find a way to address the dichotomy in your story. Otherwise, you might get a rejection from a well meaning editor or a poor review from a fan who thinks you got the facts wrong despite your hard work.

Collimating WIYN

About a week ago, I was assigned the task of collimating the primary mirror on the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Large telescopes like the WIYN work by using large mirrors to collect and focus light from distant stars onto a camera or a spectrograph. When the telescope is disassembled for regular maintenance, the mirrors have to be precisely realigned so that we get the very best possible image quality. Here you see a photo of me with my daughters in front of the WIYN primary and tertiary mirrors.

With Daughters at WIYN

Although I work with optical telescopes all the time, my specialties are more in the electrical and mechanical aspects of telescopes than with the optics, so this precision job was, to be honest, pretty scary. Sure, I’d helped the site engineer collimate the telescope plenty of times, but this time he left me with a set of instructions and went off to bed. I did my best, followed the instructions and everything seemed to go well. It was especially gratifying over the next three nights when the visiting astronomers reported getting half-arcsecond images. What that means is that stars subtended no more than half a second of arc on the sky, which is pretty tiny. That also means we’re minimizing the blurring one would expect to see from the atmosphere. I have to say, it’s the kind of thing that makes me feel pretty good.

The whole idea of characters being challenged to do new things they didn’t think they could do is an important part of my fiction. Recently, in Lightning Wolves, Larissa Crimson is challenged to find a way to make a set of unwieldy lightning guns portable enough to be practical in combat. She’s not sure if she has the skills necessary to do the job, but she gives it a shot and finds a solution.

WIYN’s newest instrument is a camera called the One-Degree Imager. It’s a camera that takes pictures of a large swath of the sky at high resolution, which means you can see things at great detail. If the telescope mirrors are misaligned, the camera cannot take pictures with the kind of detail it was designed for. So, the litmus test for the alignment exercise came this past Monday, when an observer took images of globular clusters with the One-Degree Imager. She also reported half-arcsec images, much like in the photo below. This photo, by the way, was taken with WIYN, but with the old mini-Mosaic camera before the One-Degree Imager was implemented.

A.Saha (NOAO)/WIYN/NOAO/NSF

A.Saha (NOAO)/WIYN/NOAO/NSF

Globular clusters such as the one shown above, are immense balls of ancient stars that orbit our galaxy. As it turns out, they feature prominently in my Old Star/New Earth series. Those novels are:

The ebook of the first novel is free. The paperback editions feature wonderful illustrations by Laura Givens. So, why don’t you start an epic voyage to the stars today!