An Interesting Startup

Here’s a company, Hadrian, which is planning to build a series of factories for manufacturing of precision metal components.  Their first factory is in Hawthorne, CA, and they’re building the next one nearby in Torrance.

One of the lead investors in Hadrian is the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.  The A-H partner responsible for this deal, Katherine Boyle, writes about the company, the opportunity, and why she considers it a promising investment.

Hadrian is hiring, if anyone’s interested.

Also, a thoughtful piece from Ms Boyle on the need for America to get serious.

Not Humanity’s Last View …

This is being described as “humanity’s last view of the JWST.”

6:50 AM CST, Christmas Morning

I expect imaging, and even direct viewing, of the James Webb Space Telescope from terrestrial telescopes to become a popular amateur astronomical activity in the summer of 2022. Here is why:

A full Moon has apparent magnitude -12.7. This is the result of its distance of ≈380,000 kilometers, its effective area (a circle of radius ≈1,700 kilometers) of ≈9.1 million km², and its albedo of ≈0.12.

The JWST will be at ~4 LD, the effective area of its sunshield will be ≈830 m², and its albedo will be very close to 1.

Its distance makes it 16 times as faint, its effective area makes it 11 billion times as faint, and its albedo makes it 8.3 times as bright. Multiplying all these together yields a factor of 21 billion.

The magnitude scale is measured in increments of ⁵√100 ≈ 2.5, such that each 5 steps downward is 100 times brighter. Venus, which can reach an apparent magnitude of -4.7, is nearly 100 times brighter than Arcturus (α Boötis), at -0.05. The stars in the Big Dipper and in Orion’s Belt are around magnitude +2.

The limits of my experience are the Sun, apparent magnitude -26.7, and some of the fainter Pleiades, magnitude +6.5 or even fainter—note that this takes not only very clear, dark, moonless skies, but also an hour and a half or more of no artificial light whatsoever for excellent dark adaptation, and probably eyes younger than mine are now (I am recalling an incident from my 30s). That’s a factor of almost 20 trillion.

Anyway, doing the math, something 21 billion times fainter than a full Moon has an apparent magnitude of +13.1.

Every amateur astronomer reading this just went huh. Easy.

Taking the usual limiting magnitude of the unaided eye to be exactly +6 and the effective aperture of the human pupil to be 7mm, less than 200mm of primary lens or mirror diameter would be enough. In the real world, it’s going to be harder than that … but I found Pluto in my 333mm f/4.5 Newtonian at magnitude +13.8 or thereabouts during a Texas Star Party in the 1990s.

The challenge will be figuring out which thirteenth-magnitude speck in the field of view is actually the JWST, but one thing’s going to make it a lot easier: it won’t be moving with the starry background. Its motion will essentially be at the solar rate, ~1°/day. That’s 2½ arc-minutes per hour, or 2½ arc-seconds per minute. A pair of images taken even a few minutes apart will pop it out, much like the discovery images of Pluto in 1930.

 

UPDATE (12/31): en route

Thoughts from a Cosmonaut

Valentina Leonidovna Ponomaryova is a former Soviet cosmonaut: with a background in applied mathematics, she was selected in 1962 as a member of the first group of women cosmonauts.  Never got to fly a mission, though–she’d been scheduled to fly on Vostok 6, following Valentina Tereshkova’s scheduled flight on Vostok 5, but “Ponomaryova did not respond with standard Soviet cliches in interviews and her feminism made the Soviet leadership uneasy” and the crew assignments were altered. She later worked in orbital mechanics.

Interesting interview with her here.  Particularly interesting, IMO, are her thoughts about the respective roles of humans vs automated systems in spaceflight.

In the United States, spacecraft technology developed on the basis of aviation, and the respect for and trust in the pilot, characteristics of aviation, naturally transferred to spacecraft technology. In the Soviet Union, spacecraft technology was based on artillery and rocketry. Rocket scientists never dealt with “a human on board”; for them, the concept of automatic control was much easier to comprehend.

and

There is no doubt that, despite a large number of extraordinary and emergency situations, the Gemini and the Apollo programs were completed successfully because in the United States from the very beginning manned spacecraft were designed with orientation toward semi-automatic control systems in which the leading and decisive role was given to astronauts. The Gemini guidance system was already semi-automatic, and the Apollo guidance system was designed in such a way that one astronaut could perform all the operations necessary for the return from any point of the lunar orbit independently from information received from the Earth.

The opposites eventually met: semi-automatic systems constituted the “golden mean” that Soviet and American cosmonautics approached from two opposite directions: the Soviets coming from the automatic systems, and the Americans, one might say, from the manual ones.

Applicable to systems of many kinds in addition to spacecraft, I think, and many American organizations seem to be departing from the ‘golden mean’ in the direction of too much dependence on automated systems which are insufficiently understood and supervised.

Another Possible Explanation for the Absence of Space Aliens

The physicist Enrico Fermi wondered why we haven’t seen any evidence of visitors from another planet, given that he believed intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy was highly probable.  (Maybe we have seen such evidence, given some recent UFO incidents, but for the sake of argument…)  This question is known as Fermi’s Paradox.

Standard answers to the Paradox involve emphasizing the vast distances involved, and the fact that “as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center,” as Edward Teller put it.  Another theory is that species which are sufficiently intelligent to achieve interstellar travel have a tendency to blow themselves up long before they reach anywhere in our vicinity.

Don Sensing cited another possible explanation, suggested by Geoffrey Miller:

I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain’s ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good.

See my post here for thoughts related to the above explanation and the psychology of decadence.

But I have a new theory, suggested by recent events: The aliens invent something like Twitter, their whole planet becomes the equivalent of a particularly nasty middle school on earth, and they melt down under waves of mutual accusations and denunciations.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility

This month marks the 57th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.

Several years ago,  I read  Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I reviewed here.

Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.

At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.

Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”

Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours

Chertok, who at this point was apparently viewing the Cuban affair as a flash in the pan that would be resolved short of war, was concerned that moving the Mars rocket would cause them to miss their October 29 launch date, and suggested that the swap of the rockets be delayed for a few hours. Kirillov told him that this was impossible, and that he should go to the “Marshal’s cottage,” where some of his associates wanted to see him. Chertok’s response:

Yes, sir! You’re in charge! But, Anatoliy Semyonovich! Just between you and me do you have the courage to give the ‘Launch!’ command, knowing full well that this means not just the death of hundreds of thousands from that specific thermonuclear warhead, but perhaps the beginning of the end for everyone? You commanded a battery at the front, and when you shouted  ‘Fire!’  that was quite another matter.

Kirillov:

There’s no need to torment me. I am a soldier now; I carry out an order just as I did at the front. A missile officer just like me, not a Kirillov, but some Jones or other, is standing at a periscope and waiting for the order to give the ‘Launch’ command against Moscow or our firing range. Therefore, I advise you to hurry over to the cottage.

At the cottage, four men were seated at a table playing cards while a fifth was trying to glean the latest news from a radio and Lena, the housekeeper, was in the kitchen drying wine glasses. It was suggested that since Chertok didn’t like playing cards, he should help Lena fix the drinks. This involved a watermelon and lots of cognac.

I took the enormous watermelon and two bottles of cognac out of the fridge. When everything was ready, we heard a report that U.N. Secretary General U Thant had sent personal messages to Khrushchev and Kennedy. Once again, Voskresenskiy took the initiative and proposed the first toast: “To the health of U Thant, and may God grant that this not be our last drink!” This time we all drank down our toast in silence and very solemnly, realizing how close we now were to a situation in which this cognac and this watermelon could be our last.

Still hoping to avoid the cancellation of the Mars mission, Chertok went to another cottage and, with considerable difficulty, made a forbidden call to S P Korolev, overall head of the Soviet rocket program, who was then in Moscow. Korolev told him that things were being taken care of and not to worry.

It was already dark when I returned to the Marshal’s cottage. On the road, a Gazik came to an abrupt halt. Kirillov jumped out of it, saw me, swept me up in a hug, and practically screamed: “All clear!” We burst into the cottage and demanded that they pour “not our last drink,” but alas! The bottles were empty. While everyone excitedly discussed the historic significance of the “All clear” command, Lena brought out a bottle of “three star” cognac from some secret stash. Once again the Mars rockets were waiting for us at the launch site and in the MIK.

Reflecting on the crisis many years later, Chertok wrote:

Few had been aware of the actual threat of a potential nuclear missile war at that time. In any event, one did not see the usual lines for salt, matches, and kerosene that form during the threat of war. Life continued with its usual day-to-day joys, woes, and cares. When the world really was on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe, only a very small number of people in the USSR and the United States realized it. Khrushchev and Kennedy exercised restraint and did not give in to their emotions. Moreover, the military leaders of both sides did not display any independent initiative nor did they deviate at all from the orders of their respective heads of state. Very likely, Khrushchev wasn’t just guided by the pursuit of peace “at any cost.” He knew that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was many times greater than ours. The Cubans did not know this and viewed Moscow’s order to call off missile preparation and dismantle the launch sites as a betrayal of Cuba’s interests. President Kennedy had no doubt as to the United States’ nuclear supremacy. The possibility of a single nuclear warhead striking New York kept him from starting a nuclear war. Indeed, this could have been the warhead on the R-7A missile that they didn’t roll out of the MIK to the pad at Site No. 1.

(cross-posted at Ricochet)