[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:

As usual, many things are going on in space exploration -- it gets difficult to keep up

Here are some recent highlights:

NASA's Kepler mission scientists have discovered a new planetary system that is home to the smallest planet yet found around a star similar to our sun.

The planets are located in a system called Kepler-37, about 210 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra.

The smallest planet, Kepler-37b, is slightly larger than our moon, measuring about one-third the size of Earth. It is smaller than Mercury, which made its detection a challenge.

Finding planets of this size is a true milestone in discovery, and signals exciting days ahead in the search for earth-like planets.

The current count of confirmed planets discovered outside our solar system is 868.

Last Friday saw the second launch of a commercially built supply mission to the international space station. The privately owned Dragon capsule from SpaceX successfully arrived at the space station on Sunday, having recovered from a valve or pressure line malfunction after being launched.

It will bring back science results late in the month.

This repeat trip to the space station establishes the Dragon as a very viable means of freight hauling to and from the station -- a fine milestone for commercial space systems.

And last week, a firm announced plans to have a commercial venture for "space tourists" to travel to Mars and orbit it before returning to earth on a 501-day adventure.

Is it feasible? Will it happen?

Who knows?

Yet it is a big step forward to see private enterprise beginning to think big in space missions.

A happily married couple needs to be found to be the lucky ones in the capsule. We know lots of those in this area. Scheduled departure is Jan. 5, 2018.

Lastly, Feb. 15 saw two examples of close encounters by solar system bodies -- the known passing of a small asteroid at a distance of 17,200 miles from earth, and the unexpected appearance of a smaller (55-foot diameter) asteroid that ended up entering the atmosphere and exploding over the Ural Mountains in Russia, with many small chunks crashing to earth.

They were amazing reminders of the ongoing evolution of the solar system, and the large number of small bodies that orbit the sun and don't behave as perfectly as the large planets do.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory works in this field. Its latest count is that there are about 600,000 known "minor planets," and 9,700 "near Earth objects."

The rate of discovery goes up every year, so we are not near the end of counting them all.

The good news is that none of the above bodies are calculated to impact earth. That is very good news.

The volunteers

McCarthy Observatory

New Milford