Hackaday Links: June 19, 2022

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 went rarely 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.

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