Traveling in space can be hazardous
[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:
Being in space can be challenging -- it is not as empty as we like to envision it, and things can go wrong in a hurry.
Things that go flying by do so at great speed -- usually tens of thousands of miles per hour.
This means even little things can cause huge damage in a hurry. And things can break down or wear out in this inhospitable environment.
So hazards in space are real for vehicles and people who may inhabit them. Objects orbiting Earth are having to have their courses altered to avoid space junk now and then, and the junk is accumulating mighty fast.
Currently, more than 19,000 pieces of space junk larger than a golf ball are being tracked, and more than 300,000 objects smaller than a dime are tracked, any one of which could wreak havoc on a vehicle.
Impacts from very small objects are regular occurrences, from either space "junk" or solar system "stuff." You have to make things tough to travel in space.
Remarkably, though, we have the Voyager missions that have been traveling out for 36 years and are still transmitting home.
At any given time, there is something broken on some vehicle "out there," and somehow the preparation and training of mission teams brings forth amazing results.
We have seen this in the past few weeks on the International Space Station, which began leaking ammonia. This could have threatened the crew and vehicle's life very quickly if not repaired.
Brave souls exited the ISS and made repairs -- and made it seem routine.
It is never routine. Not long before that, the ISS had a puncture hole in a solar panel. Now the Kepler mission that is searching for planets in an area of 150,000 stars in Cygnus has serious troubles, maybe a mission-ending failure in a "reaction wheel," which is a required part of guiding the instrument.
Less serious glitches are regular occurrences, and the clever means to diagnose and repair or work around problems are astounding. Yet the ultimate challenge and risk -- radiation -- looms ahead for missions populated with people.
Yet it, too, will get figured out.
We have recently heard John Grunsfeld, the famous shuttle astronaut who did the amazing repairs to the Hubble telescope, speak at a conference. He told his audience NASA is steward of more than 120 space vehicles now deployed or in the process of being designed and launched.
That is an astounding number.
Under the covers are hundreds and hundreds of ultra-sensitive instruments doing science of spectacular complexity. Great things are going on, with risks and challenges and excitement every day.
What a great tribute to mankind's ingenuity that so much has been and will be accomplished in this great frontier.
At home, things are perking at your observatory.
Galileo's Garden is getting nicer every day, with Master Gardener interns swarming around it ... with plants, mulch and beauty.
We were most honored to receive a special gift in May of a significant collection of more than 60 fine books on astronomy and famous astronomers gifted to us in memory of Gerald Mullen of Sandy Hook, an avid astronomer who passed away last year.
This is a wonderful addition to our growing astronomy library, and is very much appreciated.
Have a great summer.