For the fourth time in a year, vandals have stolen or damaged planets or other space-related pieces of the all-volunteer McCarthy Observatory's six-mile wide, scale-model solar system.

"It's just a shame because this model solar system we built is one of only a few in the world, and ours is one of the biggest, and from what I can tell, and it's hard to be unbiased, is one of the most artistic and classiest,'' said Monty Robson, the observatory's co-founder.

"This belongs to the town of New Milford," he said, "and when things happen to it, it's an offense against all of us.''

The latest theft is of the New Horizon space probe mounted on a kiosk at the John Pettibone School on Pickett District Road.

This summer, it was "catastrophically fractured,'' but Mr. Robson said a "good samaritan'' found the pieces and it was rebuilt by designer Donald Ross.

The $25,000 solar system has attracted thousands of people from the area and beyond to travel around town to view it -- visitors are given observatory passports for planet rubbings that can be stamped at the library.

The planet and space sculptures are housed at all six of the district's schools, as well as several other public places, including New Milford Public Library on the Village Green.

Indeed, the library's Neptune, prominently displayed next to the front walk, fell victim last month to a thief, who absconded with the tiny sculpture now temporarily replaced with a wooden model.

The very first planet theft had occurred last November, just five days after observatory leaders unveiled the scale model including a six-foot diameter sun mounted on the observatory grounds at the high school on Route 7.

In that case, vandals stole a tennis-ball-sized model of Uranus from its perch in front of Sarah Noble Intermediate School. The planet, however, reappeared a couple of months later when a woman found the orb tossed on her front lawn.

At the time, observatory volunteers vowed to find a way to better secure the planets to their posts so they would not be such easy targets.

Mr. Robson is adamant a few, mean-spirited folks cannot be allowed to destroy what has proven to be a meaningful attraction to so many.

"We're going to take some actions to prevent this from happening in the future,'' he said.

School district facilities manager John Calhoun affirmed he intends to work with the observatory to increase security, using outdoor cameras to capture activity around the statues.

"It's unfortunate," Mr. Calhoun said. "And we'll do everything we can to help.

For observatory information, visit www.mccarthyobservatory.org.