Gaslight Steampunk Expo

Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California. This is my first time attending this event. It will be held at the Town and Country Hotel in San Diego from October 5-7. The guests of honor include James P. Blaylock, often cited as one of the originators of steampunk, and Scott Bordeen, a maker who is credited as creating most of the commercially available versions of Disney’s famous Nautilus from the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You can get more information about the convention and a complete schedule at

My schedule at the convention is as follows.

Saturday, October 6

  • 3-4pm – Brittany Room – When Yesterday’s Science Becomes Tomorrow’s Fantasy. When you want to use retro technology, where are the boundary lines to make that technology believable in a modern context? On the panel with me are James Blaylock, Stephen Potts, and Vernor Vinge.

Sunday, October 7

  • 10-11am – Garden Salon One – The Rise of Science and Science Fiction in the Victorian Era. Mars is an ancient world filled with technology and robots. Venus is a primitive jungle world populated by dinosaurs. Where did these early science fiction tropes come from? How much was from science and how much was social science? A look at how science and science fiction developed together.
  • Noon-1pm – Vendor Hall – Autographing. I’ll be signing a selection of my books in the Vendor Hall. Of course, my policy with conventions is you can ask for signatures any time as long as you’re not interrupting a conversation. I don’t know whether books will be available with a vendor as of this writing, but I will have a selection with me and I invite you to ask me about my books at any time!
  • 2-3pm – Garden Salon Two – Victorian Computing: From the Babbage Engine to Automata. Vernor Vinge will explore Victorian era computers and what they could and couldn’t do and how they operated.

If your plans include a trip to San Diego next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Gaslight Expo. It promises to be a fun event.

Pretty Planets All in a Row

This is a great time to view planets in the night sky. Four of the five naked-eye planets are visible right now and the fifth will be reappearing around the middle of the month. The night starts with Venus in the west, setting about two hours after sunset. It’s followed by Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Around August 20, Mercury should be visible in the eastern sky just before sunrise. What’s more, Mars is near opposition, its closest approach to the Earth. In fact, it’s the closest Mars has been to the Earth since 2003 and it’ll be 17 years before Mars is this close again.

Although I operate two large telescopes for the National Observatory, I don’t get many opportunities to look at just anything I’d like. Most of the time, if I want to look at planets, I need to do so with my old reliable 8-inch Celestron telescope in my backyard. Fortunately, because this planetary show is happening in the summer and in the early evening, it’s actually pretty comfortable to sit outside with the telescope. Also, ever since my wife bought me an Orion Starshoot camera, I’m able to share my views with you.

It’s monsoon season here in New Mexico, so that often means clouds in the evening. I missed getting any views of Venus, but I did manage to get images of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is especially fun, because they are also the planets the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus visits in my novel The Solar Sea. Each of the planet pictures below is shown at the same scale, so you get a sense for how big they appear relative to each other in my telescope’s eyepiece.

Mars is the planet furthest in the east and the last of the three I observed. It was a little disappointing in that I didn’t see a lot of surface features. You can see one of the polar caps and some contrast between dark and light areas. Some of this is no doubt due to a planet-wide dust storm which has been engulfing the planet for the last month. I gather that dust storm is finally beginning to die down, so there’s a chance we’ll get better views later in the month while Mars is still close. In a way, this was kind of cool because one of the dangers the crew of the Aristarchus faced in The Solar Sea was a dust storm, albeit a somewhat more localized one than the planet is currently experiencing.

Jupiter was quite lovely and helped to demonstrate that the seeing—the atmospheric stability—wasn’t the reason Mars was somewhat washed out. The very best view of Jupiter I’ve had is through the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. It’s one of the few telescopes of that class with an eyepiece adapter, so I have had occasion to actually go out in the dome and look at objects through the telescope. This is probably about the clearest I’ve seen the bands of Jupiter through my backyard telescope and I was pleased to see the great red spot. In The Solar Sea, the crew of the Aristarchus makes a point of flying over the red spot. It’s the largest, longest lasting storm in the solar system. If I went to Jupiter, I’d have to get close, though I wouldn’t want to be in it!

Of course, the real star of the show, as it often is, was Saturn. This is by far the best photograph I’ve ever taken of Saturn. I was pleased to capture Cassini’s Division in the rings along with a band on the planet’s surface. The only time I’ve ever seen Saturn better was when I had the opportunity to look through the 24-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory a couple of years ago. As it turns out, Saturn is the object of the quest in The Solar Sea. Thomas Quinn, who designs and builds the Aristarchus, discovers powerful particles near Saturn that appear to be able to travel through time. It turns out there’s more to these particles than meets the eye!

The Solar Sea is on my mind not just because of these pretty planets all in a row. It turns out that as of last week, copies are now for sale at the Kitt Peak National Observatory visitor center, alongside the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. Be sure to look for a copy next time you visit. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a visit to Kitt Peak to pick up a copy of The Solar Sea, you can learn more about the novel at:

Objects in Transit

This year has been remarkable in that we’ve have two major solar transit events close together. The first was the annular eclipse of the sun by the moon on May 20, 2012. The other was the transit of Venus across the face of the sun just two weeks later on June 5, 2012. I was lucky enough to be at Kitt Peak National Observatory for both events. Despite the fact that I operate the two largest telescopes on the mountain—the 4-meter and the WIYN 3.5-meter—most of my viewing was simply by eye with “solar viewing glasses” I picked up from the Kitt Peak visitor center or through my Kodak camera, using the same glasses. The reason for this is that those large telescopes are simply not designed to handle sunlight. They would be seriously damaged looking at the sun just like your eye would be without help.

This first photo shows the annular eclipse near Maximum at Kitt Peak. It’s taken with my digital camera through the solar viewing glasses. Kitt Peak was a little too far south to see the full annular eclipse, but the moon still did cover much of the sun. Note, clicking on the images will bring up larger views.

Here’s a photo I took of the transit of Venus using the same camera. What amazed me was that using this ordinary digital camera, not only could I see Venus (the dark spot on the right), but I could see sunspots (the lighter spots to the left).

I was especially gratified to see the sunspots since a lot of my early research in astronomy was geared to something called RS Canum Venatacorum stars. These are binary stars about the size of the sun, but with observable star spots.

Being at Kitt Peak, I was able to see the sun through small amateur telescopes with solar filters. That allowed me to see a little more detail than I could just by eye or through the camera. Here’s a little better view of transiting Venus along with a clearer view of the sunspots.

One of the other telescopes that I was able to look through included a Hydrogen-alpha filter that blocked out a lot of the sun’s glare. The photo I took has a lot of ghosting in the center, but you can still see solar prominences—flame like structures— around the outer edge of the sun at about 2 o’clock and 5 o’clock. Keep in mind, those prominences are bigger than the Earth!

What really amazes me about seeing the transit of Venus is to realize that this is the same technique we’re using to discover many of the other planets around other stars. Basically we’re looking for that little bit of star light blocked out when a planet goes between us and that star. Many of those planets do this a lot. There are planets with years as short as 2 or 3 days!

Astronomer and science fiction writer Mike Brotherton pointed out something to me that’s fun to ponder. While we were watching the transit of Venus, it’s always possible that some extraterrestrial civilization was observing both Earth and Venus transit the sun and realizing there are planets here.

Just remember, if you want to go out and view the sun, make sure you do so using sufficient eye protection such as these solar viewing glasses, available from Amazon.