[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 is getting harder every month to keep up with space news, it seems.

This is the 23rd birthday of the Hubble telescope and it is fit as a fiddle, doing the best science it has ever done.

On the front cover of the Galactic Observer is an image taken by the Hubble recently, and released for its birthday celebration.

This is the most remarkable image ever of the "Horsehead Nebula" in Orion. It is about 30 trillion miles tall, and is a fascinating giant molecular cloud.

The Hubble continues to produce outstanding science, and hopefully will do so for many more years.

If you follow the link below, you will see a splendid short video zooming out to the Horsehead from earth and converting to the infrared image as it closes in on the cloud. It is stunning, with 3D-like effects,

The link: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2013/12/video/a/

The big discovery story of the month: the Kepler space telescope has confirmed the existence of three "super-earth-sized" planets in the "habitable zone" around nearby stars.

This means the surface temperatures of each of these planets could be suitable for liquid water. These planets will be the object of very intense further investigation, for sure.

The search for planets outside our solar system is heating up rapidly, with the count now at 889 "exoplanets," and 40 new confirmed planets discovered already this year.

The instruments and techniques now being used are zeroing in on places that could have habitats for life forms. We anticipate more and more of this kind of news in the next few years,

And a new instrument called "TESS," the Transiting Exoplanet Survey satellite, targeted to launch in four years, is designed to survey the entire sky for exoplanets.

The following year, the James Webb Space Telescope is slated to launch, with very powerful instruments for exoplanet research, as well as much other space science.

Meanwhile, the Hubble telescope has further celebrated its birthday by greatly enhancing the detection of atmospheric gases surrounding an exoplanet, including the detection of water vapor on exoplanet HD 209458b -- 200 light years away.

So, only 19 years after the first exoplanet was discovered, we are now detecting their atmospheric gases and doing detailed characterizations of large exoplanets.

How very remarkable!

And, right on schedule, the superb Herschel infrared space telescope from the European Space Agency has finally run out of liquid helium coolant, so its four-year career as a very important instrument has officially ended.

The Herschel made many contributions to deep-space astronomy, including detecting a galaxy when it was only 6.5 percent the present age of the universe and found it was creating stars at 2,000 times the current rate of the Milky Way.

Discoveries such as this by the Herschel caused great upheaval in theories about the early universe.

We live in fascinating times.

The volunteers

McCarthy Observatory

New Milford