Hunting Asteroids

I rang in the new year by helping Robert McMillan, Jim Scotti, and Melissa Brucker from the University of Arizona hunt for potentially hazardous asteroids in our solar system at the Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope. This is important work since asteroid impacts are one of the few completely predictable and preventable natural disasters. Here I am at the telescope console.

As it turns out, this observing run was something of a bittersweet milestone. Bob, Jim, and Melissa are the last scheduled visiting observers on the 4-meter. At this point, we have about five more weeks of observing with a scheduled imaging survey program and then the telescope shuts down so it can be refitted with an instrument called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, or DESI. DESI will measure the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. It will obtain optical spectra for tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a 3-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years.

So, what about the asteroids? Well, the good news is that there are smaller telescopes on Kitt Peak devoted to the search. The reason Bob, Jim, and Melissa use the 4-meter is that it allows them to look for more distant asteroids on nights when the small telescopes are not as effective. In this case, we were attempting our observations during the full moon. Because the moon is so bright, it’s hard to see faint, distant objects with small telescopes because you need to expose on the sky for a long time. The 4-meter can take shorter exposures and still detect these faint objects without having the skylight swamp the exposures. In the meantime, Bob, Jim, and Melissa have applied for time on other telescopes around the world to do the work they were doing on the Kitt Peak 4-meter.

Often times when I’m involved in these runs, I’m asked if I’ll let people know if something is going to fall on us. Well, if I know, I’ll tell. However, what we often do is identify small objects a long ways away. It’ll usually take more than the observations we get to determine the object’s orbit and find out whether or not it presents a serious hazard.

So what actually happens if we discover an asteroid that might hit the Earth? I found this NASA video that gives a nice explanation. I notice there is also an image credit from my friend Mike Weasner, a talented amateur astronomer who is also a science fiction fan.

If you want to get more of a sense of what life is like behind the scenes at an astronomical observatory, be sure to read my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel and get a sneak peak at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

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A Look Back at 2017

2017 has proven another tumultuous year in the United States and around the world. Despite all that and despite my concerns for the future, I find that 2017 was another good year from a personal perspective.

I was pleased to see the release of three new books this year. Technically, my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt was released at the end of 2016, but the paperback edition wasn’t released until January of this year, so I’ll go ahead and count it. In addition to the novel, I released two new anthologies, Kepler’s Cowboys co-edited with Steve B. Howell of NASA and Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales co-edited with Carol Hightshoe, Dayton Ward, Jennifer Brozek, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. You can learn more about my novels and my anthologies at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html

I’m also proud to have stories in three outstanding new anthologies. Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop features my story “Fountains of Blood” in which Larissa Seaton and Billy McCarty from my Clockwork Legion novels find the dark truth behind the 1896 Albert Fountain disappearance. Disharmony of the Spheres edited by J Alan Erwine features a brand new Captain Ellison Firebrandt story about his quest for lost treasure with his father. Finally, Extinct? edited by Dana Bell features my story “Jackson’s Hadrosaurs” in which the Battle of New Orleans is re-imagined in a world of dinosaurs. You can find links to these books and other short stories I’ve written at http://www.davidleesummers.com/shorts.html

I contributed introductions to two books. The first is the wonderful Astropoetry by Christina Sng. I published many of Christina’s poems over the years in Tales of the Talisman magazine and have always marveled at her use of words. As I say in the introduction, “We glimpse a wonder, ponder it for a time, then move on to another. The experience doesn’t diminish with time. Instead, it builds, layer upon layer.” You can find Christina’s fine collection at http://store.albanlake.com/product/astropoetry/

I also edited and wrote the introduction to Legends of the Dragon Cowboys which presents two weird western novellas, one by David B. Riley and the other by Laura Givens. You can learn more about the collection at http://hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#Dragon-Cowboys

My novels Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves appeared on Audible.com in editions read by Edward Mittelstedt. The timing of these audio releases proved quite fortuitous, because they allowed me to revisit the earliest chapters of the series while plotting out the fourth novel. My editor and I have just finished our work on that novel and I hope to have more news about its release soon. You can explore the entire Clockwork Legion series at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Perhaps the accomplishment I feel most proud of is the production of the short film and trailer based on my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Of course, many writers dream of seeing their creations come to life on the screen and I’m no exception. What’s more, this exercise expanded my horizons as I explored screenplay writing and I learned a lot about the movie making process from the wonderful professionals I worked with. Watch the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIcXPxmnVmQ

As we reach the end of 2017, I find I have a lot to be thankful for. Not only for the projects I’ve just mentioned, but my daughters have had good academic success this year and my wife was able to get knee surgery that has improved her mobility considerably. My work at Kitt Peak National Observatory continues to be fulfilling and I’m proud of the work I’ve done helping scientists obtain the data they need to further their understanding of the universe.

Of course, this all begs the question, where do I go from here? I’ll take a look at things to come in Monday’s post.

Fabulous Fables

Author Paul McComas recently sent me a copy of a book called Fables from Elsewhere by Dexter Dogwood. McComas wrote the foreword and served as the book’s editor. The book left me reflecting on the power of fable as a storytelling form.

Of course, many of us grew up with Aesop’s fables. In particular, I remember Jay Ward poking gentle fun at the fables with his Aesop and Son segments during The Bullwinkle Show. Because many of us encountered Aesop’s fables at a young age and because the lessons have become so ingrained, it’s easy to dismiss fables as simple kids stories in which talking animals dispense life lessons.

In fact, fables can do much more. They can tell us about the culture from which they originated, including that culture’s values. Fables don’t always present simple morals. Sometimes they give the reader something to ponder. They might even question a society’s values.

In both The Astronomer’s Crypt and my forthcoming novel Owl Riders, I used retellings of Native American fables to provide insights into the ways characters addressed problems they had to deal with.

In Fables form Elsewhere, Dexter Dogwood brings us a dozen fables from a distant world populated by such fantastic creatures as sladlours, trobligors, and cojolitors. It’s left as an exercise for the reader to determine whether this world was created in Dogwood’s fertile imagination or whether they he translated signals intercepted between two worlds. However these fables were conceived, they contain a mix of homespun wisdom, challenging concepts, and topics worthy of thought couched in simple, but not simplistic, tales of creatures making a life on a faraway planet. I now know the importance of song when harvesting snerfet plants and while some people only look at their feet, they may yet know the sky’s true color.

If you want to check out Fables from Elsewhere, you can pick up a copy at https://www.amazon.com/Fables-Elsewhere-Dexter-Dogwood/dp/1540504468/

Enterprise Cut-Away Model

Last Christmas, my family presented me with a wonderful cut-away model of the U.S.S. Enterprise from the classic Star Trek series. This is actually something I wanted long before the model actually existed. I was a fan of the original Star Trek from a very young age. The very first model I ever helped my dad build was a model of the Enterprise from the show. The one in the photo below is the new one, but it looks very much like that original I helped with.

I remember when the Universal Studio Tours started up in Southern California and my aunt and uncle went. When they came back, I asked them how it was. My aunt told me all about how they learned how movies and TV shows were made. I asked her if they had a model that showed the inside of the Starship Enterprise, because at that young age, I equated the imagined reality of the show with how the show was made. In order to placate me, my aunt assured me that such a model must exist. I was disappointed when I went to Universal Studios with my parents a few weeks later to discover such a model did not exist after all.

Flash forward some forty years and I saw just such a model in a Hastings store in Albuquerque. After doing some research, I specifically requested a version of the model produced during 1996, during the show’s thirtieth anniversary. My understanding was that the mount was more steady and the pieces fit together better than the later edition of the model. My wife found the one she gave me on eBay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to dive right into building the model. I had a novel to finish this year, plus I worked on the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt. However, once both of those projects were complete, I finally built the model and was pleased with how it came out. In the photos of the exterior, you’ll see some seams, but those are simply the places where the model comes apart to reveal the interior.

When I was a child, I confused the idea of what the fictional ship would look like with the sets a TV show would be filmed on. However, as I became a professional writer, I found detailed visualizing and understanding of how a fictional ship works is very handy for selling it as a real machine in my writing. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time understanding the deck layouts of the ships in my Space Pirates’ Legacy universe and how the solar sail Aristarchus works in my novel The Solar Sea. Given that perspective, it was fun to return to one of my first science fiction loves to see how the creators of Star Trek envisioned the interior of the Enterprise.

The photo above shows the completed interior. One thing that was disappointing in the 30th Anniversary edition of the model was that it included a very limited decal set. It did not include the interior decals for the secondary hull decks you see above and many of the exterior decals were the wrong size for the model scale. I discovered that Round-2, the company that owns AMT who produced the model, had improved the decal set. What’s more, they sell decal sets for their models. So, I simply bought the decal set for the later model and used those instead of the decals that came with the model.

This year, I came full circle on the idea of visualizing spaces for a novel and learning how to realize them for film. While writing The Astronomer’s Crypt I kept a chart of my fictional 5-meter telescope at Carson Peak Observatory. While similar to the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak where I work, there were key differences and those differences made it easy to get confused. When we filmed the book trailer, I had hopes we could use the control room at the 4-meter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get permission, so we dressed an office space to look like a control room, which really isn’t that much of a stretch. We had to put together shooting locations that weren’t adjacent to one another and make it look like they were. If you haven’t seen the results, you can check out the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIcXPxmnVmQ.

Thanksgiving at Kitt Peak

For the most part, astronomy doesn’t stop for holidays. At Kitt Peak National Observatory, the only nights we don’t open to observe are Christmas Eve and Christmas. Even then, members of my team are on hand to tend instruments and keep watch over the site so things are ready to go the day after the holiday. This year, my shift happened to fall across the entire Thanksgiving weekend. Fortunately, my wife and daughter were able to come up and spend the holiday with me.

At this time of year, I work long nights. My “day” starts around 3:30pm and I work until about 7am the following morning. On Thanksgiving Day, I walked into work to discover my workstation occupied. If you’ve seen the trailer for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt you might recognize this as something of a recurring theme in my work life! Al Cabone (the skeleton in the chair) showed up at the telescope a little over a year ago at Halloween time and has become something of a mascot.

We start in the afternoon to allow observers an opportunity to calibrate their data. This Thanksgiving, the early start allowed me a chance to bring my daughter to the telescope. She has a definite interest in the sciences with some thoughts of pursuing astronomy. So, this proved a great opportunity to give her taste of what professional astronomy is like.

During afternoon calibrations, I let her have the operator’s chair to enter some commands and try her hand at moving a 3.5-meter telescope.

After calibrations, we were able to take a break for Thanksgiving dinner. At this time of year, dinner is by necessity brief. We finished calibrations at 4:30pm. I needed to be back before the 5:25pm sunset so we could finish getting the telescope ready for the night. Fortunately, we have a kitchen staff at Kitt Peak and they prepare food for us. So my daughter and I joined my wife at the mountain cafeteria for Thanksgiving dinner.

When I speak to people about my work at the telescope, I sense that people imagine that I get to see numerous awe-inspiring sights in the night sky. In fact, some nights I do. However, some nights, the beauty comes from gaining a deeper understanding than what you see in the usual pretty pictures. On Thanksgiving, our job was to measure the spectra of stars in a couple of clusters to understand their chemical abundances. Now spectra can be very pretty, like this one of the star Arcturus, taken with the Coudé Feed telescope at Kitt Peak.

N.A.Sharp, NOAO/AURA/NSF

In that image, the interesting science is contained in the pattern of dark lines scattered among the rainbow colors. Those dark lines, or absorption lines, serve as a kind of fingerprint that tells us about the composition of the star’s atmosphere. We were using a multi-object spectrograph, which allows us to get up to 100 objects at a time. That sounds awesome, and it is. That said, this is what the raw spectra look like when we take them.

Each one of the gray stripes in the image is the spectrum of a different star in the cluster. They don’t look much like that. They’re more interesting when you use a graphics program to plot them.

That plot may not look much like the rainbow image above, but it actually contains as much information. Plotted left to right, this shows the spectrum of a star from blue to red. The downward spikes correspond to the dark lines in the rainbow images. The depth of the lines gives you information about abundances. The position of the lines relative to the light frequency can tell you such information as how fast the star is rotating, how far away it is, or even whether it has planets, all depending on the specific measurements you take.

So, the pictures we take aren’t always like those you see in the press releases on the web. Nevertheless, they do inspire dreams of faraway places and allow us to ferret out hidden information in the night sky. I’m not certain whether my daughter will ultimately choose a career in astronomy, but I am pretty sure we’ve given her something to dream about.

The Astronomer’s Crypt: Get Out!

I’m proud to announce the release of the book trailer for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. As you’ll see, we took a somewhat different approach from the usual book trailer and dramatized a scene from the novel, making it almost a short film in its own right. Enjoy!

It’s been a thrilling experience working with such a talented team to bring this scene from the novel to life. Our goal was to take the idea of the book trailer to a new level and give you a real sample of what the book is like.

Eric Schumacher, my co-executive producer and director who plays Mike, is an experienced actor and filmmaker living in Tucson. He’s appeared in the Fox series Legends & Lies: The Real West and the movie Tombstone Rashomon. He pulled together the talent who made this sound and look good. Sara Mirasola who played Claire has been in the films Date of the Dead and Thirst. I’m the voice of Professor Burroughs on the phone.

We had a terrific debut for the trailer at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona last week. Eric was on hand along with Assistant Director Elisa Cota-Francis and Cinematographer R.S. Francis. As Eric explained during the discussion, the assistant director isn’t the person who gets the director coffee, instead they’re the on-set supervisor. R.S., or Bobby as I know him, not only shot the film, but handled the special effects in the trailer as well.

After the trailer played, reader Lisa Garland said, “The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I knew I was creeped out.”

If you dare to open The Astronomer’s Crypt, you can find copies at:

TusCon 44

Next weekend, I’ll be at TusCon 44 which is being held from November 10-12 at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites in Tucson, Arizona. Timothy Zahn is the Author Guest of Honor, Theresa Mather is the Artist Guest of Honor, Melinda M. Snodgrass is the Media Guest of Honor, Geoff Notkin is the Toastmaster, Madame Askew is the Mistress of Chaos, Hal and Dee Astell are the Fan Guests of Honor. For more information about the convention visit http://www.tusconscificon.com

This year, all of my panels are on Saturday, November 11, but as you’ll see, it’s a busy schedule! I will be at TusCon all weekend and Hadrosaur Productions will be in the dealer’s room. Here’s my event schedule:

Saturday, November 11

  • 12pm-1pm – Autographing – Canyon Theater Foyer. I’ll be signing autographs alongside Jeffrey J. Mariotte, Marsheilla Rockwell, Rick Cook, and Dr. David Williams.

  • 2pm-3pm – The Astronomer’s Crypt: Making a Book and a Trailer – Panel Room 2 (Pima B). Filmmaker Eric Schumacher and I will debut our short film which presents a scene from my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Our goal with this project is to make something that goes beyond the ordinary book trailer and actually brings you inside the world of the book. We’ll discuss how we made the trailer and, if you’re an author, we’ll show you how we can help you get more eyes on your book.
  • 4pm-5pm – Publishing in 2017 – The Options, the Opportunities, the Pitfalls – Ballroom (Sabino). There’s the big press, the small press, the self press, the no press. What to do what to do? On the panel with me are Ron Collins, Julie Verley, Cynthia Ward, Beth Meacham, and Catherine Wells.
  • 5pm-6pm – The Snowball Effect: How to pick up steam on the way to making a low-budget film – Panel Room 1 (Pima A). I’ll join director Marty Ketola, actor Eric Schumacher, and actor Geoff Notkin to discuss the making of the indie film Revenge of Zoe in which screenwriter Billy Shaw must face his inner demons while convincing comic book store owners John and Pete to help him write a sequel to his greatest work; a movie about comic book super heroine Fren-Zee.
  • 7pm-8pm – Why Do Adults Like Young Adult Fiction? – Ballroom (Sabino). What are adults finding in the “kids” shelves that they’re not find in the rest of the bookstore? On the panel with me are Linda Addison, Mary Fan, Jim Doty, Jill Knowles, and Beth Meacham.

Also, I’m planning my annual shared birthday celebration with fellow longtime TusCon dealer Marty Massoglia on Saturday night after all the panels. Check with us at the convention for details. We might even go back in time on Friday night to TusCon 43 to have the party we missed last year!