Kepler, the planet-hunting space telescope, is dead

3,000 potential exoplanets later, a failed reaction wheel means the end of the Kepler mission.

The Kepler telescope, a one tonne satellite launched in 2009 to scan for planets outside of our solar system, is dead.

Over the four years of its mission, the spacecraft has found over 3,000 stars which might have planets orbiting them, and the earth-based analysis has confirmed 134 planets orbiting 76 of them.

In April, the mission even announced the discovery of two potentially habitable planets. The two were roughly earth sized, and roughly earth temperature as well. Each of them might just lie in the "habitable zone", where liquid water can potentially exist.

Sadly, shortly after that discovery, Kepler ran into problems. The telescope manoeuvres through space with four reaction wheels, which keep it pointing in the right direction using a gyroscope effect. In July 2012, one of the wheels failed, but the mission was designed to only require three to accurately aim. In May this year, however, a second wheel failed. Yesterday, Nasa announced that they had given up trying to fix the wheels. Kepler can no longer be targeted accurately.

But, good news! Rumours of Kepler's death have been greatly exaggerated (by me, in paragraph one. Sorry.), because while the telescope can't be aimed any more, it's still useful. The imaging functionality works fine, and with two remaining reaction wheels and a limited amount of thruster fuel left it's even got a bit of manoeuvrability. NASA has opened it up to the community to work out the best way to make use of what's left working; one proposal, for instance, involves heavily post-processing the images to remove drift caused by the lack of a third wheel.

There's hope for the mission yet, which is great, because as Ars Technica's John Timmer writes, there's a lot more to learn:

A longer mission would identify planets further from their host stars. To identify a candidate, Kepler needs to see it pass between Earth and the star the exoplanet orbits three times. The further out a planet is, the longer one orbit takes, so the longer it will need to do three passes. As such, the existing data is heavily biased toward planets that orbit very close to their host stars; this also means that most of the potentially habitable planets we've spotted are orbiting dwarf stars, which are dim enough that water can remain liquid close in.

In other words, we simply haven't looked long enough to detect planets in a habitable zone around energetic stars. We have a much better picture of the diversity of exoplanets, but it's far from a complete one.

Kepler. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Humans of New York isn’t journalism, but it helps us get beyond the headlines

The creator fo the street photography projecthas turned his attention to the human stories behind the migrant crisis. 

More than 59 million people around the world are currently displaced as a result of conflict and crisis. More than 500,000 of these refugees – the majority of them escaping the deadly civil war in Syria – have fled to Europe over the past several months. These are staggering numbers, and as with any large-scale human crisis, one key challenge is to comprehend the human suffering behind them.

Over the past two weeks, New York photographer Brandon Stanton – best known for his project Humans of New York (HONY) – has documented the human stories behind the migrant crisis, in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Through HONY, Stanton has catalogued the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, using photographs and short interviews with his subjects. The project is hugely popular across social media, including Facebook (15.5m likes), Instagram (3.9m followers) and Twitter (356,000 followers), and his book documenting the project became a New York Times bestseller. On September 29, he announced that he would be sharing stories from refugees who are making their way across Europe. He said:

These migrants are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history. But their stories are composed of unique and singular tragedies. In the midst of the current ‘migrant crisis’, there are millions of different reasons for leaving home. And there are millions of different hardships that refugees face as they search for a new home.

Since then, the site has shared the stories of government clerks from Baghdad, Nepalese engineers, Afghani interpreters and Syrian waiters who left everything behind and embarked on treacherous and sometimes deadly journeys to reach safety. But the question remains: how much can readers learn about a complex, global, political issue like mass migration from a handful of stories about individual people?

Pulling on the heartstrings

The project quite deliberately tugs on the heartstrings of its audiences in its attempt to generate empathy for the refugees. One typical post, featuring a photograph of a crying woman, tells the story of how she lost her husband at sea after their boat capsized: “The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me.”

Another post, featuring a photograph of a father and his daughter, is particularly touching:

Because of its distinctive style and approach, the site has not been immune to ridicule and criticism. Countless parody accounts have sprung up. These include Millennials of New York, which attempts to offer stories that are “a little less inspirational”; Felines of New York, Lizard People of New York, Pigeons of Boston and Goats of Bangladesh – to mention just a few.

But HONY also has more serious critics to reckon with. Some suggest that Stanton's stories are mere caricatures, which oversimplify and sentimentalise what are often very complex stories, and seek to emotionally manipulate audiences through clickbaiting. Debates rage over whether it can be seen as a form of journalism and, if not, how we should understand the project.

Critics may be right that Humans of New York is not journalism as we know it. After all, it shies away from claims to objectivity and is explicit about its moral aim to humanise the headlines; to dig beneath the numbers and reveal the human stories that might make audiences empathise with the suffering of distant others. The project takes place in partnership with the UN, and therefore more appropriately belongs safely in the category of humanitarian advocacy through storytelling.

Time-honoured traditions

Yet HONY borrows from long-standing journalistic and documentary practices. For example, the British social documentary movement, which started in the 1930s, was premised on the importance of telling the stories of “ordinary” people to counter the dominance of elite and upper-class in the media.

My own research on the role of emotion in journalistic story-telling demonstrates that the most highly regarded journalism – Pulitzer Prize winning reports – draw extensively on emotive and personal story-telling as a means of illustrating what are often very complex and abstract issues, ranging from the fate of the New Jersey fishing industry to breakthroughs in the use of DNA technology for medical treatments.

This is precisely because it is only through such personal stories that we can step into the shoes of others – whose lives and experiences may be very different from our own. Humans of New York may be sentimental, simplistic and saccharine to some, but it also represents a major achievement. Using time-honoured journalistic techniques, it has shown its audience that the personal and private stories of refugees represent a shared political reality, which we ignore at our peril.

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Professor; Director of Research Development and Environment, School of Journalism, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.