This year the Vatican Observatory (VO) celebrates 30 years since “first light” at the observatory’s Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mt. Graham in Arizona in the USA. When Pope Leo XIII established the observatory in its modern form (its history extends back to the Gregorian reform of the calendar) its telescopes were located within the Vatican itself. Electric lights in Rome compelled the observatory to move south to Castel Gandolfo in the 1930s; continued growth of light pollution prompted the construction of the VATT on remote Mt. Graham. The first light from the night sky entered the telescope in September of 1993.
The optics of the VATT (called “advanced” because their revolutionary design is used in the largest telescopes today) remain world class. However, in those 30 years the technology attached to the telescope has continued to advance. Ray Butler and Aaron Golden of the University of Galway (Ireland) are among the astronomers who collaborate with the VO in research. Years ago, that university loaned the observatory a special camera for the VATT, the Galway Ultra Fast Imager (GUFI). GUFI was designed to take images in rapid sequence, but with lower sensitivity and a narrower view of the sky than the VO’s regular science camera. Now Butler and Golden have brought in a new Andor Marana camera, which is more sensitive than GUFI and provides a view about four times larger. This past month they joined VO astronomer Fr. Rich Boyle, S.J. (who is observing nearby sun-like stars for possible planetary systems) up at the telescope. This image of a “globular cluster” (a tight grouping of stars that formed and orbits a galaxy as a unit) called NGC5466 shows what this new camera can produce.
The VO’s headquarters and older telescopes remain at Castel Gandolfo. There Br. Bob Macke, S.J. is currently getting ready to measure the samples of material that will be brought back from the asteroid “Bennu” in September by the NASA OSIRIS-REx mission. Br. Macke is Curator of the VO’s large collection of meteorites; meteorites are bits of asteroid that have fallen to Earth. He is building a device called a gas pycnometer that will be used to measure the density and the porosity of the Bennu specimens. He has been doing this science at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as well as at Castel Gandolfo.
Pope Leo XIII established the modern VO in part to combat the persistent myth that science and the Church are in conflict. That myth remains. Indeed, in some places numerous young people are disengaging with their faith, with many stating in surveys that “science” is a significant reason for their disengagement. Therefore, education and public outreach are important activities at the observatory.
To this end, Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., Director of the VO, spent April travelling the Great Lakes region of the USA, giving talks at Catholic churches and universities. He, VO astronomer Fr. Alessandro Omizzolo of the Diocese of Padua, and other observatory staff are now preparing for the Vatican Observatory Summer School for young professional astronomers that will be held at Castel Gandolfo in June. Also in April, the Knights of Columbus, the large USA-based international organization for Catholic men, focused their magazine Columbia on astronomy. The April issue included an article on Fr. Georges Lemaître, the Belgian priest and physicist who developed the scientific theory for the origin of the universe known today as the “Big Bang”. Chris Graney, a VO Adjunct Scholar whose specialty is the history of astronomy, wrote the article. Columbia reaches nearly two million Knights.
Thus the Vatican Observatory celebrates robust outreach, productive research, and valuable partners, thirty years after first light at the VATT.