Reflects on space discoveries of the past 45 years
Published 6:18 pm, Monday, July 7, 2014
[The following is an open letter to Greater New Milford-area residents from the volunteers at the McCarthy Observatory on the campus of New Milford High School.]
Dear friends of the McCarthy Observatory:
It was 45 years ago in July that the United States successfully completed the daring and challenging mission to land two astronauts on the surface of the Moon, and have them safely return in great health.
In the late 1960s, the Moon seemed such a distant place, and our knowledge of what we would find so wanting. This mission was one of the great achievements of human history, to be remembered forever.
Since 1969, so much has changed in our understanding of the solar system and the universe in this tiny blink of a cosmic eye.
In the past four and one-half decades, we have launched a fleet of space telescopes that together constantly monitor the Sun at multiple wavelengths, observe storms and other weather phenomena on distant planets, discover new worlds, and peer ever deeper into the distant past in search of the earliest stars and galaxies. We now get ever-closer to observing the "first light" of our universe.
When Apollo 11 was launched, the orbit of Pluto represented the outer boundary of the known solar system, and planets around other stars were the stuff of science fiction.
Since then, with newer and larger Earth- and space-based telescopes, we have found vast quantities of solar system objects, including those that pose a hazard to Earth, and proven there are countless icy worlds whose orbits reach nearly half-way to the nearest star system.
The first exoplanet was discovered only 22 years ago and now nearly 1,800 planets have been discovered around other stars, with another 4,000 potential candidates.
And the search is really just beginning.
Thirty-seven years ago we launched a pair of spacecraft (Voyager) for a grand tour of the solar system that are still operational and just now entering an area of interstellar space beyond our Sun's influence.
Eight and one-half years ago, we launched a spacecraft (New Horizons) that is now crossing the orbit of Neptune and will pass by Pluto and its five moons (four discovered since the Apollo missions) next year, bound for probing objects in the Kuiper Belt in the years beyond.
Since we stepped onto the Moon's surface for the first time, we have visited all the major planets in the solar system with robotic probes, landed multiple times on the surface of Venus and Mars and set a probe down on Saturn's moon Titan.
We have visited and studied primitive bodies like the asteroid Vesta. We have built robotic geologists and chemists that continue to explore the Martian surface, from the pole to the equator, returning conclusive evidence of a wetter and warmer Mars in the distant past and conditions that would have been suitable for microbial life.
We have collected material from primordial comets and the solar wind and returned it to Earth for analysis, and will land on a comet for the first time later this year.
We have mapped our Moon in extraordinary detail, found evidence of ice in permanently shadowed regions and peered beneath its surface, gaining a better understanding of its, and the Earth's, formative years.
We have detected lightning on Venus, possible recent volcanic activity, and indications that its rotation is slowing down.
Since the last Apollo mission in 1972, we have discovered active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io, icy fountains on Saturn's moon Enceladus, and subsurface oceans on several moons, most notably, on Jupiter's moon Europa.
A space shuttle fleet was designed, flown and retired in the past 45 years. While operational, the shuttles were able to deliver (and revisit) large, complex and sometime fragile payloads to low-Earth orbit, including the Hubble Space Telescope and many of the components of the International Space Station.
Today we have a permanent presence in space, living, working and performing research that benefits life on Earth.
The Saturn V rocket, that was the workhorse of the Apollo program, is now a museum piece. Its legacy continues, however, with powerful new rockets and spacecraft being developed for near-Earth and deep space missions.
The difference today is that commercial enterprises are also activity participating in providing space transport services with great early success, and in the near future, regular access to near-space for citizen tourism.
Hopefully, people will be sent further than the moon with the powerful rockets soon to begin testing.
Forty-five years ago, the universe was still waiting to be discovered. The progress since has been stunning -- unveiling an extraordinary number of nature's secrets.
Now that we have opened so many doors of knowledge and peered inside -- do we explore all the universe has to offer, and continue to redouble our efforts in space exploration?
Those brave Apollo explorers showed us the way¦ partaking of the immense treasures of our universe yet to be discovered is one of the great achievements we can provide for future generations.
Have a happy and safe summer.