Busy times at the Vatican Observatory

Chris Graney

These are busy times at the Vatican Observatory. We just had a big celebration for the 30th anniversary of the VO’s main telescope. We are also doing lots of research. We are even turning that research into material for the broader public.

The VO’s main telescope is the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mt. Graham in Arizona, sometimes humorously called the “Pope Scope.” The telescope is of modest size, the “VATT” name coming from the advanced methods used in its construction — methods now used in the newest and largest telescopes. 

The Vatican’s telescopes were originally housed in domes located on the Vatican walls, but the growth of artificial lighting spilling into the night sky drove the observatory to Castel Gandolfo (south of Rome) in the 1930s, and eventually to remote, dark Mt. Graham. 

The VATT first focused light from celestial objects in September 1993, so the big celebration was the weekend of Sept. 30, 2023. It featured as speaker Charles Bolden. He headed NASA in the 2010s. Before that he was a U.S. Marine pilot who served in Vietnam and was a test pilot and a Space Shuttle astronaut. He is also a man of faith, active in his Episcopal Church.

Sister Raffaella Petrini, F.S.E., Secretary General of the Vatican City State and Vatican Representative to the Board of Directors of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, holds her own “Vatty” figure.

The VATT is now being upgraded to be a robot telescope that can be operated remotely. You can even get your own “Vatty the Robot Telescope” action figure (more science humor, there) — for a substantial donation to the VATT upgrade. Research with the VATT should continue for years to come.

Lots of research is going on at the VO right now. 

Jesuit Brother Bob Macke is involved with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. It just brought material from the asteroid “Bennu” back to Earth. Brother Macke created an instrument that will be used to analyze that material. His will not be the only instrument used, of course, but it is cool that the VO is playing a part in this exciting project.

Maria Elena Monzani of the VO works on the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment that is searching for “dark matter” particles, and the LZ team recently published their first results. The hypothetical particles (never observed) are called “WIMPs” (weakly interacting massive particles) — more scientist humor. No, LZ has not detected WIMPs yet, but the team is just getting started.

My own research on “The Challenging History of other Earths” was recently published in an astrobiology journal. Then I was promptly invited to speak about it to an exoplanet research group at NASA-Goddard. The short version: We humans have always been attracted to the idea of other Earths (and intelligent life on them) far more than the science warrants.

Meanwhile, the VO’s director, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, and I have a new book just out this month with Paulist Press. It is called “When Science Goes Wrong: The Desire and Search for Truth.” 

We wrote it for the broad public, not just for scientists. We don’t talk about Bennu or WIMPs; we do talk briefly about other Earths. We mainly talk about science and about faith, all in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, of ideas about the nature of the Earth and the universe, of ideas about Jupiter’s moons, and of efforts to “scientifically” measure and assess human worth. 

We argue that, in this last case, science went wrong in a way that is not humorous at all, and that in it we find the usual narrative of religion and science inverted.

All of this is just since mid-summer. And, there is plenty going on at the VO that I have not talked about. Like I said, busy (and exciting and fun) times.

Chris Graney is an astronomer with the Vatican’s astronomical observatory who lives in Louisville.

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