Stars, Galaxies, and Fiber Optics

The first time I remember learning about fiber optics was in a behind-the-scenes article published in 1980 or so about the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The article talked about how they got light to all the buttons on the bridge set and showed them illuminated with bundles of optical fiber. Nowadays, as I’ve mentioned in several earlier posts, I work with instruments that use optical fiber to carry light collected by each of the telescopes I work with to the instrumentation where its analyzed.

On the telescope side, those fibers are attached to an optical assembly that must be placed at just the right spot to catch focused light. If the star or galaxy is out of focus, not all the light goes down the optical fiber. We also have guider cameras that work to keep the object precisely aligned on the fiber so all the light gets to the spectrograph. It’s a lot of complex hardware to work right to precisely measure the the redshift of distant galaxies or look at a star and determine whether or not it has planets in orbit. This past week, we’ve been commissioning both the DESI spectrograph at the Mayall 4-meter and the NEID spectrograph at the WIYN 3.5-meter. One of the most important milestones is to get light from the object you want to measure to the spectrograph and see if you get the flux you expect. Here’s the NEID team at WIYN looking at early test results.

Yes, light leaves a star dozens of light years away, enters our telescope, goes down the optical fiber and is photographed with the spectroscope, then all that data can be viewed and analyzed on a laptop computer. When I filmed the trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt a couple of years ago, I was asked why we didn’t use a room full of fancy computers and monitors. We just had a couple of computers, one of which was a laptop. The reason is that I’ve seen a lot of control rooms where simple computers are the only ones present!

As you can imagine, it’s quite a relief to see all the work pay off in a spectrum that shows the flux level you expect. All of this is pretty exciting stuff and, as it turns out, my birthday fell during this past week’s tests. Seeing NEID as it nears readiness for scientific use is pretty exciting in its own right, but we had another surprise on the day of my birthday. Ethan Peck, who plays Spock on Star Trek Discovery, was on a road trip and decided to visit the observatory. A tour was arranged and he spent the beginning of the night at the WIYN telescope. For me, it was quite a thrill to have Spock, of all people, wish me a happy birthday! He brought a Polaroid camera with him and we snapped a photo of us standing by my control station. Here we are at WIYN. Ethan Peck is in the center (in white) and I’m to the left.

Meanwhile, across the mountain at the Mayall 4-meter, commissioning has continued on the DESI instrument. The instrument had its official “first light” a couple of weeks ago and a wonderful image was released that, I think, really illustrates the power of DESI.

Image credit: DESI Collaboration, Legacy Surveys; NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/NSF/AURA

Here you see an image of all 5000 DESI fibers superimposed on the sky. At the bottom of the fiber array is M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Below that is a view of the spectrum from just one of the 5000 fibers showing the light from that little piece of the galaxy. In it, you can see the lines labeled that denote the presence of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and even sulfur. Now remember that each fiber in that picture gives the same kind of data for the piece of sky its on. You can read the full press release about DESI’s first light at: https://nationalastro.org/news/desis-5000-eyes-open-as-kitt-peak-telescope-prepares-to-map-space-and-time/

All of the robotic positioners moving those fibers at the top of the Mayall telescope get hot and there’s a chiller system to keep them cool. This week, that chiller system will be automated, but last week, we had to monitor it by eye and it requires a person to turn the system on and off by hand. The person doing that remarked how spooky it is to be in the depths of the Mayall with all the lights out and remarked how she kept looking over her shoulder, wondering if someone was there. This is another aspect of my job that definitely helped to inspire The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel and see the trailer I mentioned earlier at http://www.davidleesummers/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

The Inevitable Cycle Revisited

This past summer, I paid a return visit to one of my favorite places, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. In light of that visit, I thought I’d revisit a post I originally wrote for my Scarlet Order Journal three years ago on the occasion of another visit and share some new photos. Lowell Observatory is famous as the site where Percival Lowell observed Mars for many years, recording his observations of the canals he—and most mainstream scientists of the day—believed they saw. It’s also the observatory where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Of course, in mythology, Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld and a figure closely associated with the spirits of the dead. Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill is also the site of Percival Lowell’s Crypt. The photo here is from my 2019 visit.

If you look carefully at the tomb, there is an epigraph, to the right of the door. It reads, in part, “Everything around this Earth we see is subject to one inevitable cycle of birth, growth, decay … nothing begins but comes at last to an end … though our own lives are too busy to mark the slow nearing to that eventual goal …” The words on this astronomer’s crypt go a long way to explaining what draws me to horror. Birth, growth, and decay are not only inevitable, but all can be frightening. Horror provides a mechanism for taking a look at the things that frighten us and getting a handle on them.

The epigraph continues: “Today what we already know is helping to comprehension of another world. In a not distant future we shall be repaid with interest and what that other world shall have taught us will redound to a better knowledge of our own and of the cosmos of which the two form a part.” The quote comes from Percival Lowell’s book, The Evolution of Worlds. Horror might be scary, but it reminds me that humans can overcome even the worst terrors to accomplish great things. In fiction that can be defeating a villain or a monster. In real life, we might conquer our fears to expand the borders of human understanding.

Right next to Lowell’s crypt is the telescope where he observed Mars for many years. This year, we arrived on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was my second opportunity to go in, and see the telescope. I got to ask questions about the building, the original clock drive and whether the original f-stop is still on the telescope. My daughter even had a chance to move the dome around. They had a public night scheduled, but our schedule didn’t allow us to return. Back in 2016, we were able to visit at night and we had a terrific view of Saturn. We could see resolution in the clouds and the rings were sharp and beautiful. If the ghost of Percival Lowell wanders the observatory grounds, I suspect he’s proud of the job the people there do of giving the public a glimpse at the universe, which can be at once scary and beautiful.

I hope my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt scares you when you read it. I also hope you’ll see how people overcome fear and accomplish great things. Even though I hope to show you scary things in that novel, I also hope to show you some of the beauty that this universe and the people who inhabit it possess.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is on sale for just 99 cents this month of October 2019. You can get copies at:

Seeing Daylight Once Again

As I write this, the DESI Commissioning Instrument run at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory will be nearing completion. The Commissioning Instrument is an array of five digital cameras that view the sky through the telescope’s new optics. Once the Commissioning Instrument comes off, the actual DESI fibers and robot positioners will be assembled at the focal plane. This is a process that’s estimated to take about three months to complete. During that time, I’ll be returning to day shifts at the Mayall telescope, helping with the installation. The DESI fiber “wedges” are starting to arrive and assembly has actually begun on some components down on the telescope’s ground floor.

There is a terrific video describing the DESI project and showing these wedges being populated with the fibers in the lab that you can watch at: https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2018/10/17/dark-energy-project-robots-3d-map-universe/

The DESI fibers are the business end of getting light from distant galaxies where it needs to go to be analyzed. Light traveling for billions of light years will be sent through those fibers to be separated and photographed by spectrographs. Before light gets to the fibers, it has to be collected by the telescope, where it will pass through an optical corrector lens. The corrector makes sure that when the telescope is focused, each fiber will also see an equally focused object. Of course, to do this, the whole instrument has to be aligned well with the primary mirror so we know each target lines up with a fiber.

The goal of the Commissioning Instrument is to give us a simple camera that lets us check that the corrector lens is doing its job. It also allows us to test the alignment and focus mechanism, which we call the hexapod. We want to make sure these critical components work before going to all the work of assembling all those fibers at the top of the telescope. In fact, during the Commissioning Instrument run, we discovered that the corrector was eight millimeters too close to the primary mirror. This was a result of telescope blueprints from 1973 not being updated with as-built specs. Eight millimeters may not sound like much, but it’s enough to keep the fibers from being in focus during the warmest nights of the year! So, the hexapod and corrector assembly were moved, which is much easier to do now than when all the fibers are in place.

I have enjoyed my day shifts at the Mayall this past year. It’s given me a chance to interact with more of the maintenance and engineering crew than I normally do in my nighttime operations. I won’t be working exclusively during the daytime. I will still spend one week a month supporting nighttime observations at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. If you would like a behind the scenes look at what it’s like to work at an observatory at night, along with something of a scary story, check out my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Troubleshooting

My friend Darla Hallmark sells buttons that say, “The problem with troubleshooting is that trouble often shoots back.” In my job operating telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I often get to see the truth of that statement. Here I am in my natural habitat at the control station of the WIYN telescope.

My actual title at Kitt Peak is “Senior Observing Associate” and my job is more than being a telescope driver. I see myself as the person whose job it is to make sure the astronomers who use the telescopes actually get the data they hope to obtain. At night, especially at the WIYN telescope, I’m often the only person in the building. It’s quite common for observers using the telescope to control the cameras over the internet and talk to me all night on a Skype connection.

The observatory has a daytime staff of engineers, electricians, mechanics and more. Most of them are tucked snug in their beds when I’m working through the night. So, if something goes wrong, I’m the guy who has to fix it, or find a workaround until the next day when the daytime staff returns to work. I think its a real testament to the design and maintenance of the telescopes at Kitt Peak that serious problems don’t crop up all that often, but when they do, they can be a challenge.

We had one such problem this week at WIYN. We were using the Hydra spectrograph. Instead of an eyepiece or a camera looking directly at the sky, there is a metal plate. Fiber optics in magnetized housings sit on that metal plate and face the sky. A robot within Hydra can move those around so they’re in a position to capture light from distant objects. This week, each fiber was placed to catch light from galaxies approximately 11 billion light years away. As you can imagine, you need to place that fiber in just the right place to catch that tiny bit of light. This is what the inside of the Hydra spectrograph looks like. You can see the fibers on the left-hand side. The robot that moves the fibers is on the right.

The problem we had was that some of these fibers were missing the light. To confuse matters, not all the fibers were missing the light. We saw light from some galaxies. We saw light from all the stars that let us do fine corrections to our pointing on the sky. My first thought was that there was a calculation error and not all the fibers were being placed correctly. The astronomer looking at these galaxies checked and eliminated that possibility. Next, we used a camera on the robot to watch the fibers as they were being moved to see if they were being placed where we put them. The robot did just what it was supposed to do.

The final step in this procedure is that the metal plate on the left gets warped, because the telescope’s focal plane isn’t actually flat. We watched the fibers as the plate was warped. The fibers in the center “jumped.” That’s not supposed to happen. As of this writing, I’m not sure why warping the plate made some fibers jump but not others, but the obvious workaround is not to warp the plate. What this means is that some galaxies will be better focused than others, when we take data, but since we’re taking spectra, that’s not a showstopper. We just care that the light makes it down the fiber. Once that happens, the astronomer can see what elements exist in that galaxy and get information about how far away it is and how fast its moving. As the weeks goes on, that team of engineers and technicians will take the information I learned about the problem and work to find a solution.

If you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at my job operating telescopes, you might enjoy my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. It tells the story of ghosts, gangsters, astronomers, and a dangerous Apache spirit colliding at a New Mexico observatory on a dark and stormy night. You can learn more about the novel and watch a cool trailer at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

If spooky stories aren’t your thing, but you’ll be in Phoenix, Arizona on Thursday, May 9, you can join me at the next meeting of the Phoenix Astronomical Society, where I’ll be talking about the DESI project on the Mayall 4-meter telescope and sharing some behind the scenes photos of the installation. You can get more details about the meeting at: http://www.pasaz.org/index.php?pageid=meetings

Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories

There’s something about the long, dark nights just as autumn turns into full-fledged winter that seems especially suited to spooky tales. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Victorians were especially fond of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Of course, one of the most famous ghost stories of Christmas is none other than A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The novel itself does a very good job of making the ghosts frightening and my favorite adaptations are the ones that truly capture the chilling moments. However, A Christmas Carol is not the only Christmas ghost story Dickens told.

Charles Dickens published “The Signal-Man” in the 1866 Christmas edition of his periodical All the Year Round. “The Signal-Man” tells the story of a traveler who comes upon a lonely railroad signal-man who tells him the story of a ghost who appears every time disaster is about to strike the train line. There’s not much Christmas in this tale, but it’s full of atmosphere and foreboding. It struck me that the traveler tries to find rational explanations for the ghost that sound a little like Scrooge dismissing Marley’s ghost as more gravy than grave. It also struck me that the lonely signal-man bore more than a passing resemblance to my spooked telescope operators in The Astronomer’s Crypt. A lonely, isolated setting works well in any ghost tale. “The Signal-Man” is available to read in Charles Dickens’s collection, “Three Ghost Stories” available at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1289/1289-h/1289-h.htm.

Another fascinating winter ghost story is “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. This was first published in the January 1851 edition of the Dublin University Magazine. This is a story about two cousins who take up residence in a haunted mansion in Dublin only to be beset by mysterious thudding footsteps and apparitions of a man with a noose about his neck. Of course, Le Fanu is most famous as the author of the vampire tale “Carmilla” which inspired both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and my story “Fountains of Blood,” which appears in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone. As it turns out, “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” was ultimately collected in the book In a Glass Darkly alongside “Carmilla.” There are several free versions of LeFanu’s haunted house story, but the one I read was at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/aungier/.

Like Dickens, Le Fanu makes an effort to rationalize the ghost before revealing that the haunting is real. It’s fascinating to me to see the tug-of-war between the spiritual and the rational at this time period. To be quite honest, I have felt this tug-of-war myself. I’m a professional scientist who is a trained skeptic. Yet, I’ve had experiences I can’t completely explain. I’ve taken photographs that appear to show ghostly shadows and I’ve seen lights where they shouldn’t be.

When I wrote the first part of The Astronomer’s Crypt, I set it during the long dark of winter on a stormy night. I based it on a real night that I experienced when I was alone, servicing the instrumentation. I had a strong sense of dread and felt certain something was coming to get me. Wind caused the dome to rattle and it whistled like a ghostly wail. Even though I was dressed in a heavy coat, I couldn’t get warm. It was a relief when I finally escaped the observatory for the morning and snuggled into my blankets. If you’re looking for yet another Christmas ghost story, you can read my fictionalized account of that night at http://www.davidleesumers.com/Astronomers-Crypt-Preview.html.

Here’s wishing you many bright lights and clear winter days to dispel the ghosts of the long, dark nights around the solstice.

Always Available

It occurs to me that a central theme in many of my stories is communication. Some of my stories are set in the past, well before the advent of modern communication, or they’re set in the distant future, when communication becomes a technical challenge again because of the constraints imposed both by the speed of light and signal degradation over distance. This proves to be an interesting time to write about these challenges, because most of us have some form or another of this device.

Most of us are available to get a call or receive a text 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We might be inconvenienced by the occasional dead time during a flight where we’re instructed to turn off our phones to avoid interfering with navigation equipment, but that’s about it.

That said, I work in a world where I’m not so easily available. I work at an observatory with radio telescopes and the spread spectrum signals from cell phones interfere with their observing. So, I’m required to turn off my phone while at work. Because my work shifts require me to be on the mountain for up to six days at a time, I can be out of cell phone contact that whole time. Even observatories without radio telescopes are often in remote mountain areas, out of range of cell service. Because of this, the whole lack of cell service became a plot point in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. This is a nice feature for a horror novel where you don’t want help to arrive at a moment’s notice.

In my novel The Solar Sea, a valiant crew of explorers take a solar sail to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Even on relatively short distances like within the solar system, communication can be a challenge. On average, it takes about 15 minutes for a signal traveling at the speed of light to reach Mars, about 30 minutes for a signal to reach Jupiter, and almost an hour and a half to reach Saturn. This assumes the planets are aligned on the same side of the sun as Earth. Still, imagine having a conversation where you speak and wait 15 minutes for your voice to get to Earth, then wait 15 minutes for a reply. Your messages would be more like voice mails. Or you might resort to something like email or texts for communication, which is what they do in my novel.

Back in the nineteenth century, inventors were working on ways to use electromagnetism to speed up communication. The upshot was the development of the telegraph and then the telephone. I have long found it interesting how delays in news affected events before these inventions, and even before these inventions became widely available. This allows for some fun what-if games when writing steampunk. What if instant communication was available to some? How would people view it in the 19th century. In Lightning Wolves, bounty hunter Larissa Crimson asks Professor Maravilla to devise a way for her lightning wolf corps to communicate as they spread out across San Francisco. He devises something he calls a clacker, essentially a portable, wireless telegraph that acts like a messaging device. Eight years later, in Owl Riders, clackers are much more widespread to Ramon Morales’s chagrin. At one point, he hands his clacker to his wife and pretends he didn’t get a message, an action perhaps not unlike what some of us are tempted to do today when certain texts come in.

Remember, all of these books make great last-minute holiday gifts. You can find these and more at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html.


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