Hubble’s aging hardware was last serviced directly in 2009 by space shuttle astronauts, and engineers estimated back then that it would last until around 2016. “After a few years in flight with all the refurbishes, engineers reevaluated the survivability and reliability of the instruments and started pushing everything much further out,” says Tom Brown, the head of the Hubble Space Telescope mission office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “The most recent estimates say that there’s an excellent chance we’re going to be doing science like we do today until at least 2026, and perhaps the whole decade. It’s looking pretty good right now.”
Hubble has been used in practically every kind of astronomy investigation: studying planets and moons in our own solar system; peering at distant stars, galaxies, supernovas, nebulas, and other astrophysical phenomena; studying the origins and expansion of the universe.
Its work in exoplanet science in the last decade has been especially surprising, considering that when the telescope was launched in 1990, we were still five years away from detecting the first exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star. Hubble isn’t useful for actually finding exoplanets but, rather, for follow-up observations that can characterize planets and their atmospheres once they’re found. When the James Webb Space Telescope launches later this year, the two observatories combined might finally help scientists identify an Earth-like world that’s truly hospitable to life.
The JWST is often promoted as Hubble’s successor, but that isn’t quite right. Hubble can observe the universe in visible and ultraviolet wavelengths, while JWST’s focus is on infrared observations, which help us study early-universe objects and characterize the chemistry on other worlds. Being situated in space, Hubble doesn’t have to worry about inference caused by Earth’s atmosphere, which is especially detrimental to ultraviolet observations (the ozone layer blocks out most UV radiation).
This is also critical when we need eyes to study poorly understood phenomena. Take the 2017 detection of gravitational waves produced by the collision of two neutron stars. Hubble was able to observe the event’s aftermath, providing data outside the infrared spectrum that was used to define the shape and evolution of the merger in crisper detail.
Four major scientific instruments are currently active onboard Hubble, so even if one or two things stop working, there is still a ton of major science the rest of the observatory can do. The telescope is also built with a lot of redundancy, so single hardware and software failures don’t necessarily stop individual instruments from working.
That being said, there are no plans for a new service mission. If there’s a catastrophic failure that takes Hubble entirely offline, it’s hard to see NASA greenlighting a repair mission for an observatory that’s over three decades old.
So what replaces Hubble when it’s finally ready to retire? Brown says other nations have nascent plans to put other missions in orbit that could take up the visible and UV investigations currently run by Hubble. India’s Astrosat space telescope currently does UV observations from space, but with a much smaller aperture. China is looking to launch a space telescope called Xuntian in 2024, and state media says it will observe an area of space 300 times larger than Hubble can.
The true successor to Hubble might be NASA’s proposed Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor space telescope, or LUVOIR, a general-purpose observatory capable of observing in multiple wavelengths (including infrared, optical, and ultraviolet). But if funded, LUVOIR wouldn’t launch until 2039 at the earliest.
It’s possible Hubble will stay on until it can be truly replaced, but most astronomers are bracing for a big knowledge gap when it finally stops working. “Hubble is really the premier game for doing ultraviolet and optical astronomy,” says Brown. “So much of astronomy, especially when it comes to understanding temperature and chemistry in outer space, hinges on the information you can really get from it. I fear the space community is really going to feel the loss when Hubble stops working.”
A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing
The researchers claim that their approach could be used to train AI to carry out other tasks. To begin with, it could be used to for bots that use a keyboard and mouse to navigate websites, book flights or buy groceries online. But in theory it could be used to train robots to carry out physical, real-world tasks by copying first-person video of people doing those things. “It’s plausible,” says Stone.
Matthew Gudzial at the University of Alberta, Canada, who has used videos to teach AI the rules of games like Super Mario Bros, does not think it will happen any time soon, however. Actions in games like Minecraft and Super Mario Bros. are performed by pressing buttons. Actions in the physical world are far more complicated and harder for a machine to learn. “It unlocks a whole mess of new research problems,” says Gudzial.
“This work is another testament to the power of scaling up models and training on massive datasets to get good performance,” says Natasha Jaques, who works on multi-agent reinforcement learning at Google and the University of California, Berkeley.
Large internet-sized data sets will certainly unlock new capabilities for AI, says Jaques. “We’ve seen that over and over again, and it’s a great approach.” But OpenAI places a lot of faith in the power of large data sets alone, she says: “Personally, I’m a little more skeptical that data can solve any problem.”
Still, Baker and his colleagues think that collecting more than a million hours of Minecraft videos will make their AI even better. It’s probably the best Minecraft-playing bot yet, says Baker: “But with more data and bigger models I would expect it to feel like you’re watching a human playing the game, as opposed to a baby AI trying to mimic a human.”
The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death
+ Scientists have found a way to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab. It could offer them new ways to start a family—without the need for distressing IVF procedures. Read the full story. + How reproductive technology is changing what it means to be a parent. Advances could lead to babies with four or more biological parents—forcing us to reconsider parenthood. Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Elon Musk wants to reinstate banned Twitter accounts
It’s an incredibly dangerous decision with widespread repercussions. (WP $)
+ Recent departures have hit Twitter’s policy and safety divisions hard. (WSJ $)
+ It looks like Musk’s promise of no further layoffs was premature. (Insider $)
+ Meanwhile, Twitter Blue is still reportedly launching next week. (Reuters)
+ Imagine simply transferring your followers to another platform. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)
2 Russia’s energy withdrawal could kill tens of thousands in Europe
High fuel costs could result in more deaths this winter than the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ Higher gas prices will also hit Americans as the weather worsens. (Vox)
+ Ukraine’s invasion underscores Europe’s deep reliance on Russian fossil fuels. (MIT Technology Review)
3 FTX is unable to honor the grants it promised various organizations
Many of them are having to seek emergency funding to plug the gaps. (WSJ $)
+ Bahamians aren’t thrilled about what its collapse could mean for them. (WP $)
5 The UK is curbing its use of Chinese surveillance systems
But only on “sensitive” government sites. (FT $)
+ The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of. (MIT Technology Review)
7 San Francisco’s police is considering letting robots use deadly force
The force has 12 remotely piloted robots that could, in theory, kill someone. (The Verge)
8 Human hibernation could be the key to getting us to Mars
It could be the closest we can get to time travel. (Wired $)
9 Why TikTok is suddenly so obsessed with dabloons
It’s a form of choose-your-own-adventure fun. (The Guardian)
10 We can’t stop trying to reinvent mousetraps 🧀
There are thousands of versions out there, yet we keep coming up with new designs. (New Yorker $)
We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?
His parents told a court that they wanted to keep the possibility of using the sperm to eventually have children that would be genetically related to Peter. The court approved their wishes, and Peter’s sperm was retrieved from his body and stored in a local sperm bank.
We have the technology to use sperm, and potentially eggs, from dead people to make embryos, and eventually babies. And there are millions of eggs and embryos—and even more sperm—in storage and ready to be used. When the person who provided those cells dies, like Peter, who gets to decide what to do with them?
That was the question raised at an online event held by the Progress Educational Trust, a UK charity for people with infertility and genetic conditions, that I attended on Wednesday. The panel included a clinician and two lawyers, who addressed plenty of tricky questions, but provided few concrete answers.
In theory, the decision should be made by the person who provided the eggs, sperm or embryos. In some cases, the person’s wishes might be quite clear. Someone who might be trying for a baby with their partner may store their sex cells or embryos and sign a form stating that they are happy for their partner to use these cells if they die, for example.
But in other cases, it’s less clear. Partners and family members who want to use the cells might have to collect evidence to convince a court the deceased person really did want to have children. And not only that, but that they wanted to continue their family line without necessarily becoming a parent themselves.
Sex cells and embryos aren’t property—they don’t fall under property law and can’t be inherited by family members. But there is some degree of legal ownership for the people who provided the cells. It is complicated to define that ownership, however, Robert Gilmour, a family law specialist based in Scotland, said at the event. “The law in this area makes my head hurt,” he said.
The law varies depending on where you are, too. Posthumous reproduction is not allowed in some countries, and is unregulated in many others. In the US, laws vary by state. Some states won’t legally recognize a child conceived after a person’s death as that person’s offspring, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). “We do not have any national rules or policies,” Gwendolyn Quinn, a bioethicist at New York University, tells me.
Societies like ASRM have put together guidance for clinics in the meantime. But this can also vary slightly between regions. Guidance by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology, for example, recommends that parents and other relatives should not be able to request the sex cells or embryos of the person who died. That would apply to Peter Zhu’s parents. The concern is that these relatives might be hoping for a “commemorative child” or as “a symbolic replacement of the deceased.”