Beautiful Sunsets

My work “day” at Kitt Peak National Observatory gets going in earnest when the sun sets. We have a saying at the observatory that beautiful sunsets mean poor observing. For better or worse, we’ve had some beautiful sunsets this past week.

There is some truth to the notion. Clouds can make dramatic sunsets, but they also obscure the view of even the most powerful optical telescopes. Red sunsets are often caused by dust or smoke in the air. Both are bad for observing in their own right. They make the sky hazy, but they can also settle out on telescope optics, which then becomes a problem when the weather gets even better. Unfortunately, big telescope optics are not easy to clean and the particulates can even damage them.

The wind that kicks up particulates or dries out the brush, giving us fire conditions, can also be a problem for observing. An unsettled atmosphere can make objects magnified with a telescope look fuzzy and distorted. It’s what we call bad “seeing.”

Nights with these kinds of poor, but not stormy conditions, can be the most difficult in my work life. We have to be ever vigilant to make sure the winds don’t get too high to safely operate the telescopes or the clouds don’t build up to ones that might drizzle. Even a little bit of water on telescope optics can ruin a telescope operator’s night. The wind can actually blow the telescopes around enough that we have a difficult time tracking targets precisely.

Our best nights are those when the sky is clear and calm at sunset. A few high clouds on the horizon aren’t ideal, but they’re not necessarily terrible. This was a sunset taken on a pretty good night.

This sunset’s pretty cool because I caught just a little of the “green flash” effect. I was just using the camera on my Kindle, so it doesn’t look as green as it did watching it, but you can see the after image of the sun just above the setting sun itself. That’s caused by atmospheric dispersion stretching the image of the sun like a prism or a rainbow. So you see the green/blue light of the sun set after the yellow light.

So, yeah, you can have pretty sunsets on good nights, too. They may just be a little less dramatic than the sunsets on the difficult nights.

If you want to see what happens when I imagine a truly dramatic night at an observatory, read my book The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about it here: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

Like telescope operators, vampires also come out when the sun sets. I imagine a vampire telescope operator in my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Read a sample chapter and learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.

Laboring on Labor Day Weekend

No one can predict the weather. That’s even true for world-class astronomers and astrophysicists. As a result, the world’s premier facilities for collecting astronomical data, such as Kitt Peak National Observatory, are staffed year-round regardless of weekdays or holidays, so that we can take advantage of clear, stable skies whenever they occur. The only exception the observatory makes most years is Christmas and Christmas Eve. This year, one of my shifts happens to fall over Labor Day Weekend. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Kevin off the coast of Baja California is also pumping lots of moisture up here, so we’re spending some of our time waiting, watching and hoping the skies will clear.

WIYN-Clouds

Of course, even with clouds, it’s not all waiting around, doing nothing until the skies clear. Over the course of the summer monsoon shutdown, a new Telescope Control System was installed at the Mayall 4-meter telescope. All indications are this new control system had made great improvements in the pointing and tracking performance of a 45-year old telescope, getting it ready for a new world-class spectrograph that will be installed over the coming years. Still, it means I get to learn how to drive the telescope all over again, and it’s best if I do that on these cloudy nights so I’m ready to go when the skies clear and astronomers go hunting those photons that may have taken thousands, millions, or even billions of years to reach us.

Keeping busy right now is good, since my editor dropped me a note at the beginning of the week, saying that she’s started editing my horror novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. So now I’m at that nail-biting stage of wondering which scenes she’ll like and which ones she’ll want rewritten. Her note mentioned that I better not give her nightmares. I can’t help but wonder if my horror novel fails to give her nightmares will I have have succeeded or failed! Seriously, though, these dark and stormy nights that we’re having at the observatory right now are not a little like the one described in the novel. Stay tuned for more news!

LC-Comicon-Logo

Working Labor Day Weekend also means that I have the following weekend off, which means I get to display my books in Artist’s Alley at Las Cruces Comic Con. You can find more information about the event at: http://lascrucescomiccon.org/. I’ll be in the vendor hall all three days of the event. For all my friends in Las Cruces, I hope you’ll drop by the table and say “hi!”