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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.