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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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution