(The following is an open letter to Greater New Milford residents from the volunteers at the McCarthy Observatory on the campus of New Milford High School.)

Dear friends of the McCarthy Observatory:

As you have likely seen in recent news reports, things don't always go well in space ventures.

It is very difficult to get payloads into proper orbits or other exploration trajectories because much can go wrong. This has been true since the advent of space missions.

It is hard. Three recent mission failures have had tragedies that are setbacks to commercial space ventures.

In August, the European Space Agency (ESA) attempted to put two satellites in position for their very advanced Galileo GPS system, but they failed to achieve their proper orbits.

It is believed the problem was in the upper stage of the launch vehicle. These were numbers five and six in a plan to position 30 new next-generation GPS satellites in orbit.

ESA is working hard to see if the two satellites can be of value in their lower orbits for their main purpose or other use. This very accurate GPS system will be useable for many worldwide commercial purposes.

There is great confidence the whole network will get deployed, but there is much to be done to sort out the issues from this failure.

On Oct. 28, Orbital Sciences Corp. attempted a launch of its Antares rocket from Wallop's Island, Virginia to send its Cygnus vehicle with 5,000 pounds of science instruments and supplies to the international space station.

The initial stage of the rocket failed in the first seconds after launch and the vehicle had to be destroyed immediately to minimize damage. Determining the cause of failure and how to prevent it is an arduous task.

On Halloween, the Virgin Atlantic Corp. SpaceShipTwo broke apart over the Mohave Desert shortly after being launched from its mothership WhiteKnightTwo.

Two test pilots were aboard; one of them was killed and the other is hospitalized at this writing.

This was the 55th test flight for SpaceShipTwo and the 173rd flight for WhiteKnightTwo.

No information is available yet regarding the cause. This is a serious setback for this commercial venture for taking passengers to the edge of space.

These three mishaps are from very different origins.

ESA was using a regularly used rocket, Orbital Sciences had two prior successful deliveries to the space station, and Virgin Atlantic had been doing well in its very creative vehicle design and engineering.

So, space exploration continues to be a dangerous business, yet risk is the price of discovery.

The aircraft industry suffered the same kinds of setbacks for decades, and learned greatly from it. How we confront the perils of spaceflight will ultimately determine if we will be able to leave our Earthly cradle and venture out into the cosmos.

The mishaps of late will lead to ever-better design and new ideas -- such has been the case for well over 50 years of this great adventure for mankind.

The next great adventure is occurring this week, as ESA attempts to soft-land a probe on a comet -- a never-before-attempted feat.

The probe, "Philea," is scheduled to be launched from the Rosetta mothership on the morning of Nov. 12 to land on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko -- now about 300 million miles from Earth.

What a great achievement -- a vehicle images a comet after traveling for 10 years to reach it, transmits mapping detail to Earth, where a 3D digital map is developed, put on the Internet and students can print superb models of it in their school.

We are seeing the future. This whole adventure with a comet has really captured the imagination of the observatory volunteers.

Landing on a comet, finding out what it is really made of... amazing.

Please watch the drama unfold Nov. 12 and beyond.

The volunteers

McCarthy Observatory

New Milford