The folks at NASA are taking a well-deserved victory lap this week after the splashy reveal of the first scientific images from the James Webb Space Telescope. As we expected, the first public release included a lot of comparisons to images obtained from Hubble, as the general public understandably sees Webb as the successor to the venerable space telescope, now in its third decade of service. So for a “let’s see what this baby can do” image, they turned Webb loose on a tiny patch of sky in the southern hemisphere containing galactic cluster SMACS 0723, and sent back images and spectroscopic data from galaxies up to 13 billion light years away. There are plenty of analyses of Webb’s deep field and the other images in the first release, but we particularly liked the takes by both Anton Petrov and Dr. Becky. They both talk about the cooler scientific aspects of these images, and how Webb is much more than just a $10 billion desktop image generator.
It’s been a while, but next week marks the return of HOPE. The Hackers on Planet Earth conference is finally back and in person for the first time since 2018. The con, dubbed “A New HOPE,” will in their new venue on the campus of St. John’s University in Queens, as opposed to their old haunt in the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan, which is currently being demolished. Attendance was limited this year, for obvious reasons, and the usual precautions will be in effect for attendees. Online ticket sales are now closed, and they won’t be selling tickets at the door. So if you’re planning on going, you’ll have to see if someone has a ticket they’re willing to part with.
You may recall that NASA recently reported on troubling glitches in Voyager 1‘s telemetry, which seemed to indicate the 45-year-old planetary-probe-turned-interstellar-explorer was having trouble maintaining its attitude in space. This would obviously be a Very Bad Thing™, since keeping its big dish antenna pointed precisely back at Earth is crucial to staying in contact with mission controllers. It turns out the glitch is just, well, a glitch, and controllers have a workaround in place, one of many that have kept the Voyager mission going at many points since the twin 1977 launches. But now, in a bid to figure out the root cause and perhaps issue a fix, engineers are taking the RTFOM — “read the freaking old manuals” — approach and poring over the original design docs for clues. This isn’t as easy as it sounds; unlike today, where everything regarding a mission is archived and preserved in digital archives, a lot of the original JPL docs were dead-tree only. What’s worse, a lot of what was written down has disappeared, as engineers at NASA and JPL have retired or otherwise moved on. That means there are probably a few boxes of old fanfold printouts sitting in a garage in Pasadena that hold the key to solving the glitch, and finding them boils down to figuring out who worked on what when, and where they ended up after their stint on Voyager ended.
And finally, a couple of weeks ago, the indispensable Grady over at Practical Engineering did a great video that explained the details of horizontal directional boring. It’s a fascinating subject, and the idea that you can control the direction of a flexible drill string over long distances is pretty cool. We’ve actually seen a fair amount around our parts lately, where multiple network providers are vying to install competing optical fiber networks. But judging by the number of news stories about contractors hitting a gas line that we see, it’s not quite as easy as it seems. To get a flavor of what it’s like to run a directional drilling rig, Grady teamed up with Dan Schiffman to create a simulator game that’s addictively educational. We’ve been playing all morning and have only managed to hit the target a couple of times — it’s remarkably difficult to control something that has just two possible orientations and moves forward relentlessly.