Reassembling the Mayall

Back in July, I discussed some of the different components that had come in for the DESI instrument being installed at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s Mayall 4-meter telescope. You can read about them in the post, Assembling the Puzzle. The corrector optics and hexapod alignment system have been installed into the telescope’s top end. Here I am, hard at work torquing the bolts that hold it all together.

If all goes according to schedule, the new top end will be lifted to the top of the telescope next week. At that point, the telescope will look more like itself again. Control cables and network boxes for the top end assembly will then be assembled so astronomers working in the control room can talk to the instrument. At that point, the work platforms that are visible in the older post will be disassembled. Here’s a look at the top end, almost ready to lift up to the top of the top of the telescope.

Once the top end is back on the telescope, the primary mirror, which is currently out of the telescope, will need to be re-aluminized. Telescope mirrors are finely polished, curved glass. Over the top surface is a very thin layer of aluminum which is applied in a vacuum chamber. The vacuum chamber for this process is the biggest one in the southwestern United States. I describe a scary scene involving such a chamber in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Fortunately, care is taken to operate the chamber very safely in real life.

One thing to note about the top end in the photos above is that there is no actual instrument mounted yet. Astronomers rarely sit at an eyepiece actually looking through a telescope anymore. Most of the time, there’s a high precision digital camera looking through the telescope. Sometimes that high precision camera is designed to look at a specific wavelength region, such as optical light or infrared light. Sometimes that camera doesn’t look at the sky directly, but at light that’s been reflected off a grating. A grating is just a reflecting surface that breaks up light like a prism. The advantage to a grating is that you lose less light than you do when you shoot it through a chunk of glass. Breaking up light then allows you to see lines in spectra that tell you about the chemistry of the object you’re looking at.

In a nutshell, that’s the kind of instrument DESI is. Astronomers are interested in the chemistry of the objects they’re looking at. However, there’s one other feature you get by studying these spectral lines. When an object moves, the lines shift toward the blue end of the spectrum if the object is moving toward the observer or toward the red end of the spectrum if the object is moving away. That’s what we mean when we talk about blue shift and red shift. What’s more, how far the chemical lines have shifted is a measure of the object’s velocity through space. The goal of DESI is to measure the velocity of some 5000 objects every time the telescope points to a new target. That said, this data will be available to everyone and it contains all the fundamental chemical information about the objects the telescope is pointing at.

Before the final DESI instrument goes on, there will be a commissioning instrument. That will be more like a regular camera—more like looking through an eyepiece. The goal of the commissioning instrument will be to align the telescope on the sky after all this work has been done and assure that the telescope has good pointing so that we can get the best data when we’re using the spectrographs later.

Once the commissioning instrument goes on the telescope, I’ll return to my regular nighttime duties at the Mayall, shaking down the rebuilt telescope and getting it ready for its next five year mission. My novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, which I mentioned in passing, is not just a horror novel, but it provides a look behind the scenes at an observatory. If you’re interested in seeing what goes on at night at a facility like Kitt Peak, or one of the other observatories where I’ve worked over the years, it’s a great place to start. Just be warned, not only will you encounter astronomers, engineers and technicians, but some ghosts, a monster from Apache lore, and a few other surprises as well. You can get more information about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html


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Ten (plus) Years at Kitt Peak

David Lee Summers, Christian Soto, and Dick Joyce at the annual AURA service awards ceremony.

This month, I received my ten-year service award from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy for my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The awards were presented following an annual presentation on the state of the observatory. Other award recipients included my boss, Dick Joyce, whose been with Kitt Peak for 45 years and one of my fellow Observing Associates, Christian Soto, who is celebrating his five-year anniversary. The photo shows the three of us at the University of Arizona ballroom where the presentation was given.

As it turns out, I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for more than a decade. I was tempted away from graduate school in 1992 and worked at the observatory until 1995. During that time, I watched the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope’s construction and served as one of its first four operators. I left because my wife and I were expecting our first child and I wanted a job that allowed me to be home more of the time. So, I went to work helping to finish commissioning a 1-meter telescope run by New Mexico State University. In late 2007, a former co-worker from Kitt Peak called me up and said they needed experienced telescope operators and asked if I wanted to return. At that time, I was a full-time writer and editor and wasn’t sure I did want to, but I agreed to an interview. They offered me a job and after much soul-searching I decided to return. I started in February 2008. So, now that it’s October, that means I’ve actually worked at Kitt Peak for about fourteen years. Unfortunately, human resources said I was away too long for my previous seniority to count, but my boss has expressed an interest in rectifying that if possible. We’ll see if that happens.

I feel like I made a good decision in returning. One surprising fringe benefit was that I became a more productive writer even though I was working full time. I suspect there are a few reasons for that. First of all, it forced me to better organize my time. Also, it put me into a position where I was interacting with people face-to-face more regularly, which I think helped me to bring more depth and emotional realism to my writing. Of course, the story of my departure and my return directly inspired elements of my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt.

In the book, Mike Teter leaves the observatory because of a frightening experience. As it turns out, his experience was based on something that happened to me in my first tenure at Kitt Peak. It was a windy, stormy morning and I had gone up to make sure I’d serviced the instrumentation for the morning. The wind rattled the dome and there was an energy in the air. I had an unshakable feeling that something didn’t want me there and some kind of force was coming to remove me from the mountain. That frightening feeling went away after I’d had some sleep and I didn’t leave because of that incident, but I asked myself what if there really had been an evil force? What if it had manifested? Would I have been able to stay if my fears had actually materialized? I channeled that experience into the novel’s prologue. I know prologues often get a bad rap, but I made it a prologue not because it was “optional” but because it was an inciting incident that happened a few years before the main action of the novel.

If you’re in the mood for a scary read this Halloween week, you can read the entire prologue for free at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt-Preview.html. If you get to the end and find you’re hooked, I have information about how you can order a copy of the novel. Hope you have a spooktacular week!

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/

Thoughts about the Sunspot Observatory Closure

From 1995 until 2001, I worked on New Mexico State University’s 1-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory. The observatory is about one mile down highway 6563 from the Sunspot Solar Observatory. The highway gets its number because the hydrogen-alpha spectral line which is important to solar astronomy is at 6563 angstroms. Here’s a look at Apache Point. The 1-meter enclosure is in the foreground with the 3.5-meter telescope in the background.

Occasionally, when I worked at Apache Point, I would make the hike down the road to get lunch at Sunspot’s on-site cafeteria. Sunspot recently made news because of it was suddenly closed and vacated on September 7. It just reopened at the beginning of this week on September 17.

Sunspot Solar Observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the same organization that manages Kitt Peak National Observatory where I currently work. Because of all these connections, it’s not surprising that I received a lot of questions about what was happening at Sunspot.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t know much beyond what I’ve read in the news. It’s been 17 years since I’ve been to Sunspot and although Kitt Peak and Sunspot are administered by the same top level board, different companies actually run the observatories at a day-to-day level. Kitt Peak is run by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and Sunspot is run by the Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium, a group managed out of New Mexico State University.

The sudden closure created rampant speculation ranging from lost military secrets to Bigfoot to the observatory harboring a UFO. To be honest, I’m not quite certain how a remote solar observatory with a staff of nine would capture a UFO, but it sounds like it could make a fun short story. Just to demonstrate how even a hint of something can run away from people, when I mentioned the possibility of writing a short story on Facebook, it eventually came back around to me that I’m hard at work on a novel about this subject. That’s quite an upgrade!

As I understand, the reason for the sudden closure had to do with an on-going law enforcement investigation at the site. Apparently because there was concern that a suspect in the investigation might pose a threat to the people at Sunspot, the decision was taken to vacate the nine employees and close the facility. According to various media outlets later in the week, it was discovered that a janitor at the site was downloading child pornography and had made veiled threats against the management and fellow staff.

In fact, the “mundane” explanation of a criminal investigation makes a lot of sense to me. Over the years, I’ve heard numerous tales of various people at observatories all over getting up to no good. Perhaps the most infamous story has to do with a disgruntled employee firing a handgun at the primary mirror of the 107-inch telescope at McDonald Observatory in Texas back in 1970. The mirror survived the assault and, in fact, is still in use. The bullet holes have simply been painted black to avoid scattering light. I have known people at observatories who have threatened violence and even become violent. I’m glad to see a facility such as Sunspot take actions to avoid a more tragic outcome to a bad situation.

It’s stories like this and stories of real-world border crime that influenced one aspect of the conflict in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. That said, one of the criminals does allow himself to get carried away by the notion that there might be aliens or even a monster laboratory at the observatory. The irony is that it isn’t the astronomers who are creating the monster they encounter, but other dark forces at work around the observatory, including some aided by a disgruntled former employee.

My observatory in The Astronomer’s Crypt is entirely fictional. However it is set in the same mountains as the real Sunspot Solar Observatory. The one thing that struck me was how much the real world observatory closure reminded me of what the aftermath of my novel’s events would look like. That said, the observatory of my novel would not be opening just ten days after the incident was resolved. To find out why, you’d just have to read it. To do that, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html and find out where to order your copy.

Tips for a Successful Author Reading

On Friday, I had a great time giving a reading at Potions Lounge, a speakeasy bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans managed by Marita Crandle, owner of Boutique du Vampyre. I love reading from my work and, in recent years, I almost always sell books as a result of my readings. Unfortunately, readings are not always well attended, especially at venues such as science fiction conventions. The reason is simply that many readings don’t prove to be memorable experiences and people skip them for other events. Below I present a few tips that have worked for me when giving readings.

Don’t read from the book

This may sound counterintuitive, but allow me to explain. Often at a reading, the first thing I see someone do is pull out a copy of their novel and start reading from it. It seems like a good idea because you’re reading the words as they were published and you’re showing off your book. The problem is that font sizes and bindings often mean you have to hold the book closer to your face than ideal. It also can be surprisingly easy to lose your place, especially if you look up to make eye contact with the audience.

I took a lesson from my days in choir. I print out my reading with a nice, easy to read font on one side of the paper and put it in a notebook. It allows me to hold the book further away, making it easier to look up from time to time and make eye contact. If you want to show off your cover on what you’re reading from, you can print out a nice copy and slip it into the plastic sleeve on the front of the binder. Better yet, bring your book and prop it up on a table while you read.

Go slow

When I’m nervous, I start talking faster. When I talk faster, I stumble over my words and my words become non-distinct. My mom’s family is originally from Texas and when I catch myself doing this during a reading, I summon my inner Texan and slow down. By this, I don’t mean that I drawl my words, but I take my time with each word and make sure I see and say each one in turn. It’s actually quite hard to go too slow during a reading.

Practice beforehand

I spend months and perhaps even years with a manuscript before it’s published. Therefore I must know it inside and out. Right? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I can read it well. Again, taking a lesson from those choir days, it doesn’t matter how well you think you know a story, practicing always helps. A rehearsal session also allows you time to experiment with varying your voice for different characters. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, just work on making sure you learn to read their dialogue as naturally as possible. Some readings enforce time limits, especially if you’re reading during the same session as others. Practice helps assure that your reading will fit. Make sure you practice going slow!

Read a complete piece

I don’t necessarily mean that you should read a novel from cover to cover or even a complete chapter if your chapters are long. However, your reading should have a hook, some development, and some kind of satisfying conclusion. Let your audience feel as though they’ve had a complete storytelling experience.

Lagniappe

This is a term from Southern Louisiana and it means “a little something extra.” Always give your audience some kind of lagniappe. A baker might give you a thirteenth doughnut when you order a dozen. When I give a reading, I try to do something a little extra and fun. The photo above is from WesterCon in Phoenix where I showed a rough cut of the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt during my reading. At Bubonicon, later that year, I read from my new anthology Kepler’s Cowboys and invited fellow contributor Gene Mederos to read with me. He showed off some of the artwork he’d created inspired by the stories. I’ve done Halloween readings where I give out candy. I even did a space pirate reading where we sung sea chanties. A lagniappe doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t even have to cost you anything. What it should do is let the audience know they’re special and appreciated.

Are you an author who has given readings? If you have additional tips, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

New Orleans Book Signing

This Friday, May 25, I’ll be signing copies of my novels, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, The Astronomer’s Crypt, and Owl Riders at Boutique du Vampyre at 709 1/2 St. Ann Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Boutique du Vampyre is a unique store that offers everything from jewelry and apparel to art and dolls to both vampires and mortals who are friends of vampires. My two Scarlet Order novels are clearly right at home at Boutique du Vampyre and I’m proud to be featured on their shelves alongside such authors as Alys Arden and Bruce T. Jones.

While The Astronomer’s Crypt doesn’t feature literal vampires, I’ve long thought of those of us who work all night long at observatories as kindred. We start work at sunset and leave before sunrise. It’s possible to avoid the daylight entirely in the job. Some observatories do have actually have crypts on site, and perhaps it’s not surprising that we hear our share of ghost stories. There are also more than a few mundane dangers that come with working at remote high-altitude locations late at night. The book imagines what happens when ghosts, gangsters, a monster from Apache lore, and astronomers collide during a terrible thunder storm. The Astronomer’s Crypt may not be a vampire novel, but it sits comfortably in their company!

Owl Riders is my latest novel and like The Astronomer’s Crypt does not feature vampires. Much of the novel, though, is set in the New Orleans French Quarter and the character Marie Lalande is a Voodoo practitioner. What’s more the novel’s protagonists, Ramon and Fatemeh Morales, live on the same French Quarter block as Boutique du Vampyre. This will be the novel’s first official book signing and it seems fitting to release it so close to Ramon and Fatemeh’s fictional home.

While getting ready for the signing event, I was going through files on my computer and found a book trailer I’d created for the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order about twelve years ago, but never released. Overall, I felt like it held up. The only problem was that some of the information at the end was incorrect, but I was able to fix that with some judicious editing. So now, the trailer is live on YouTube and you can watch it here.

I created the trailer from illustrations Steven C. Gilberts did for the novel and gave it some film stutter and scratches, so it had the feeling of old vampire films I remember watching, such as Dracula or Nosferatu.

After the signing, I’ll be reading from my vampire novels at Potions Lounge on Bourbon Street. If you come by the signing the staff at Boutique du Vampyre will give you all the details about when to join us. If you’re in New Orleans for Memorial Day weekend, I hope you’ll join us for a truly special event. If you can’t make it, you can order signed books from Boutique du Vampyre by visiting http://www.feelthebite.com.

The Cost of Opening the Crypt…

…just went down! Courtesy of my publisher, the ebook edition of The Astronomer’s Crypt is being offered for the special price of 99 cents for the rest of the month. The ebook normally runs $4.99, so this is a remarkable 80% discount, which means it’s a great time to pick up a copy for your ereader. If you’re already a fan, consider gifting one to a friend!

The Astronomer’s Crypt tells the story of astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from Apache legend colliding at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. As followers of the web journal know, I’m an astronomer who operates telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. The observatory is 56 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. The last ten miles of the drive up to the observatory are up a road that winds and twists its way up the mountain. Once you reach the summit, you find a virtual city consisting of twenty-two optical telescopes and two radio telescopes. Even so, after the sun goes down, many of the telescopes on the mountain are automated and some are only operated part time. It’s not unusual for there to be only a handful of people at the observatory at night. That all noted, Kitt Peak is both quite accessible and quite well staffed compared to some astronomical facilities where I’ve worked.

I have worked many nights in my career at observatories where I’ve been one of perhaps two or three people on a remote mountain site. It’s dark. The insides are the buildings are kept deliberately dim so your eyes can adjust if you need to go outside and evaluate sky conditions. In a wilderness situation, wild animals can and do make it inside the buildings. It’s so quiet, you hear every creak and groan of the building. You’re working late at night and you’re tired and not always thinking clearly. You’re trying to focus on the data you’re taking. It’s easy for a person in those conditions to imagine many scary things.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is a book made up of many of those dark imaginings, some of which are not far from the truth. Over the years, I’ve encountered unexpected people at observatories during the night. Fortunately, most have been cooperative and left when asked, but I have wondered what I’d do if I encountered truly bad people. I’ve been to observatories such as Lowell in Flagstaff, where there are real mausoleums on the site, where people who loved astronomy are interred. It’s not hard to imagine ghosts wandering around at those places. I’ve been through many terrible storms, sometimes with sheets of rain pushed by winds in excess of 70 miles per hour. On those nights, nature itself is terrifying. You can get a sense for how all of this combines in the novel by watching the trailer:

Two years before the events of this trailer, on a stormy night, in the dead of winter, Mike Teter experienced something that would change his life forever. Mike was a telescope operator at the world renowned Carson Peak Observatory in New Mexico. I won’t tell you what he saw that night on the mountain nor what happened afterward on a dark stretch of highway, because it would haunt you just as it has haunted Mike. But what I will tell you is that Mike is back at Carson Peak. And what he witnessed that night two years ago is about to become a reality…

You can pick up The Astronomer’s Crypt for just 99 cents at: