Ad Astra

Like the bow of a medieval ship, Blackrock Castle breasts the headwaters of the River Lee just five kilometres from the centre of Cork City. It was built in the 16th Century to defend the city from Barbary pirates, but the castle has found a new purpose for the 21st Century as a leading centre of astronomy and public outreach.

Research at Blackrock Castle Observatory is focused on the search for planets orbiting other stars; the worldwide effort to catalogue asteroids and comets that might one day threaten life on Earth; unravelling the mystery of Gamma Ray Bursts, which may be emitting, within seconds or minutes, more energy than the Sun will produce in its entire 10 billion years of life; and probing the hearts of active galaxies that seem to have super-massive black holes at their cores.

Blackrock Castle Observatory also has a public exhibition, Cosmos at the Castle, open daily to visitors who can learn about the evolution of the universe from the earliest moments to the present day and beyond. They can become flight controllers on a space mission to divert a comet from colliding with the Earth or use a radio telescope to beam messages to nearby stars.

Now that it is fully operational, the Blackrock Castle Observatory celebrated the start of its 2008 season with a unique party, linking musicians and schoolchildren on Earth with the permanent residents of the International Space Station flying 340 kilometres overhead.

The event was a celebration of county Cork's links with US astronaut Dan Tani, the flight engineer aboard the station. Tani is a regular visitor to Cork, where he first met Jane Egan who is now his wife. The Egan family have been particularly supportive of Tani since the tragic death of his mother just before Christmas. Ninety-year-old Rose Tani was killed by an oncoming freight train after she drove around a school bus and tried to bypass closed railway gates in the family's home town of Lombard, Illinois.

Aside from the great personal tragedy, the event is significant because this is the first time in the history of human space exploration that flight controllers have had to break such devastating family news to an astronaut in space. Major issues were raised for psychologists about the grieving process, since there was no prospect of Tani being returned to Earth without forcing all three station crew members to abandon the outpost. Such issues do not arise even in Antarctica where an emergency airlift can almost always be arranged. There have been valuable lessons for future missions to Mars.

Dan Tani last saw his mother during a video conference from space the day before the Thanksgiving holiday; he elected to continue with his normal duties – including an arduous space walk at the end of January – while psychological support has included a private video conference between his family in Ireland and the grieving astronaut aboard the space station.