Hackaday Links: June 19, 2022

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The James Webb Space Telescope has had a long and sometimes painful journey from its earliest conception to its ultimate arrival at Lagrange point L2 and subsequent commissioning. Except for the buttery-smooth launch and deployment sequence, things rarely went well for the telescope, which suffered just about every imaginable bureaucratic, scientific, and engineering indignity during its development. But now it’s time to see what this thing can do — almost. NASA has announced that July 12 will be “Image Release Day,” which will serve as Webb’s public debut. The relative radio silence from NASA on Webb since the mirror alignment was completed — apart from the recent micrometeoroid collision, of course — suggests the space agency has been busy with “first light” projects. So there’s good reason to hope that the first released images from Webb will be pretty spectacular. The images will drop at 10:30 AM EDT, so mark your calendars and prepare to be wowed. Hopefully.

Apparently, sitting in the middle of the ocean on a boat, even one built like a luxury hotel, can get pretty boring. That’s the tacit admission of cruise line operator Royal Caribbean, who are really interested in getting Starlink satellite service on their fleet of cruise liners. So much so that they’re partnering with Starlink and petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to speed up the process of approving Starlink for use on moving vehicles. The FCC currently forbids that use case, which we find a little surprising given that terrestrial Starlink customers are supposed to be able to pay an upcharge for “RV mode,” which lets them relocate their terminal. There’s a fine line between using the service at multiple stops along a route and just using it while in motion, so maybe Royal Caribbean will get their wish. Personally, adding internet connectivity seems like the last thing that would actually entice us aboard a cruise liner, but hey — whatever floats your boat.

So you’ve managed to buy a new car — a neat trick considering the tumbleweed-strewn wasteland most car lots resemble these days — and you somehow managed to fill up the gas tank. What’s next on your journey to the poorhouse? Why not sport a digital license plate on your new ride for a mere $25 extra a month? The company that makes these plates, Reviver, says their offerings are approved for vehicles registered in California, Arizona, and now Michigan, and are legal for use across state lines. They appear to be based on e-Ink technology, which means you just get a monochrome rendering of the state’s license plate — which in the case of Arizona’s standard plate is a bit of a shame. Reviver claims there are all sorts of benefits to paying a monthly subscription fee to have one of their plates, like GPS-enabled telematics to track a stolen vehicle. We’d say the plate itself is more likely to get stolen, and while we won’t encourage that, we do look forward to the inevitable teardowns as these things hit the secondary market.

We’ve been skeptical of the future of electric airplanes, mainly based on doubts that battery technology will ever get to a power-to-weight ratio that will make something like an electric passenger jet practical. But watching this video might make us rethink that position. The plane is built by Lilium, and shows the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) plane doing its first in-flight transition. The seven-passenger aircraft, which sports 36 electric-ducted fans in movable flaps on the trailing edge of its wings and forward canards, takes off vertically but then smoothly transitions to forward flight with lift generated solely by its wings. It’s quite graceful, and the plane itself is beautiful. The company claims it’ll take a full load of passengers 175 km using its VTOL capabilities, or a bit further if it can land without using vectored thrust. An electric plane like this might make “Uber Air” technically possible, and it might have a huge impact on regional passenger travel and air freight.

And finally, our friend Alberto Caballero sent word of a pre-print of a paper he’s been working on that, depending on how you look at things, might just serve as nightmare fuel. Entitled “Estimating the prevalence of malicious extraterrestrial civilizations,” the paper aims to assess the relative risk of Active SETI efforts, which seek to “reach out and touch someone” out in the galaxy. Given that 100% of the known civilizations in the galaxy are unambiguously malevolent, and least occasionally, it would seem that the odds of announcing ourselves to the galactic mean kids are pretty high. But Alberto, an astronomer who heads the Habitable Exoplanets Hunting Project and came on the Hack Chat a while back, calculates that being invaded by malicious aliens is about 100 times less than the probability of Earth being hit by a Chicxulub-grade impactor. Phew! The details behind that conclusion are interesting, and the paper is worth a read to see how he came to that conclusion.

11 thoughts on “Hackaday Links: June 19, 2022

  1. Years ago I used to wonder about the dreamers wanting to be on a spacecraft approaching the speed of light. Even in deep outer space traveling a light year or so, it seems to me that the odds would be pretty good that the craft would collide with something, even the size of a grain of sand. I remember the damage done to the space shuttles front window when colliding with small paint chips. The micrometeor hitting the Webb mirror made me think of that scenario again! 🔭

    1. Also we happen to be sitting on a large void in space caused by ancient super nova. Outside the bubble of void is a whole lot more dust and micro-meteorites. This bubble is roughly 1,000 light years across so we’d be mostly safe with local star systems but we’d need some kind of deflector when we travel outside the bubble.

  2. Estimates of the occurrence of Alien civilizations (the Drake equation) miss 2 key facts about Earth.

    Earth had an early impact that ultimately melted our core and gave us the moon. Moons are frequent, but a large moon capable of causing tides is rare.

    The molten core gives us the magnetic field, which protects life from dangerous radiation. It also give us plate tectonics, which means the environments are constantly changing over geologic time scales. Continents break apart isolating species, and come together (India versus Asia) to join species. The movement causes all sorts of environmental havoc, such as volcanoes, orogeny, and the flooding/formation of the Mediterranean sea as Africa moved away from Europe.

    The tides allow the sea water to flow back and forth, so that to live all you have to do is anchor yourself and filter the water. No locomotion or hunting required, much of the energy needed for life is supplied by that mechanism. Tidal pools are teeming with life.

    Since big moon-forming impacts are rare, all of these (magnetic field, environmental change, availability of water motion to aid life) are unlikely on distant planets, and from this we can estimate that the rate of evolution on those planets would progress more slowly than on our own.

    Roughly 360 mya, plants evolved to produce lignin. This was indigestible by microorganisms of the time, so when the trees died they laid down a layer that did not rot. This continued for some 60 million years until the microorganisms developed enzymes to digest the wood. The layers of undigested dead plant matter that covered much of the land area were converted into the layers of coal we see today. There are huge swaths of coal almost everywhere from this process.

    Making steel requires either coal or charcoal, and making charcoal is a tremendously work-intensive process. It is only through the use of coal that we had the industrial revolution, and a planet with no vast veins of coal could not evolve very far on the use of charcoal. Such a planet would find making steel very difficult and time-consuming.

    As an analogy, think of the civilization in Game of Thrones: they had written history going back 10,000 years, they were stuck at medieval levels (stone castles and wooden stockades), and steel was so expensive that bandits would raid a town to steal their axe heads.

    To support an advanced civilization, the mutation that caused lignin to be un-decayable and the subsequent mutation that reversed this would have to also occur on the distant planet. Or alternately, some other quirk of evolution needs to happen that gives the residents easy access to high energy resources suitable for the smelting of metals. *Possibly* nuclear energy could accomplish this, but it’s hard to see how they could develop the means to start and control a nuclear reaction without first having access to smelted metal at an industrial level. At the very least you would have to smelt the Uranium.

    Our own evolution of life took around 4.2 billion years. This rate of development is probably quite high for the previous reasons. The development of our civilization took around 4.5 thousand years, and our rate of development was also quite high for the availability of coal.

    If life on other planets evolves at one third the rate that ours did, it would take that life longer than the current age of the universe to get to our level. Even if they evolved to the point of intelligence, it is unlikely that they would have access to resources similar to coal to drive their civilization forward to the advanced stage.

    In my opinion, we are probably the first evolved and advanced species.

    1. Just as well there could be some (to us) unimaginable quirk of luck on another planet that would speed up evolution by billions of years.

      To me the biggest misestimate in typical uses of Drake equation is the “release of detectable signals to space”. In popular literature, it is often mentioned that Earth’s TV and radio broadcasts will travel in space for infinite distances. It is technically true, but with our current technology we would be hard-pressed to detect ourselves at a distance of mere 4 light-years. And as technology is moving to spread spectrum signals and tighter use of bandwidth, decoding signals becomes impossible and even detection becomes more difficult as they resemble high-entropy noise.

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