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This week in space: DARPA, Juno, and no aliens

Finally, some good news from Juno: it’s back in fighting trim and responding properly to commands from mission control. A software hiccup seems to have been behind the spacecraft entering safe mode on October 19, because when mission control told it to come back out of safe mode five days later, nothing physical appeared to be wrong. “Juno exited safe mode as expected, is healthy and is responding to all our commands,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager. “We anticipate we will be turning on the instruments in early November to get ready for our December flyby.”

DARPA has officially finished work on their Space Surveillance Telescope, which is meant to protect military satellites by watching for space junk in geosynchronous orbit. They’ve handed the telescope off to the Air Force, which intends to put it in Australia, there to better monitor that less-well-watched region of the sky.

Astronomers found an icy little trans-Neptunian object that might help us finally make some testable hypotheses about Planet 9’s current whereabouts in space. If we’re going to find it at all, one good shot is using gravitational perturbations to show us Planet 9’s “wake” in space. If we can catch its trail through the outer solar system, we’ll have a much better shot at finding it.

It might seem like a simple matter of pointing a telescope at the ecliptic and turning in a circle, but scientists think Planet 9’s orbit could be out of plane with the ecliptic. For a long time we’ve wondered why the ecliptic is about six degrees off from the sun’s equator. If the gravity well of a 10-earth-mass planet has been dragging the other planets slightly out of plumb for four and a half billion years, though, that might explain the weirdness.

Earlier this year we made a 3D map of a very large volume of space. Now scientists have made the most detailed map of the Milky Way ever, which lays out the locations of all known clouds of cold gas, in addition to all the other stars and space objects we already knew about.

Also, the “alien megastructure star” is not dimming because aliens, although we’re still pointing our telescopes at it with enthusiasm. We’re stubbornly sticking to the idea that there just has to be recognizable life out there, somewhere close enough that we can find it. Furthermore, we can’t easily explain what we’ve seen, so we want to keep looking until we know more. SETI and Breakthrough Listen are teaming up to get radio telescope time devoted to looking at Tabby’s Star. Soon we’ll know whether there are any repeating patterns discernible in the radio emissions.

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