For 400 years, the Vatican has been advancing scientific inquiry and promoting awareness of how our universe works. Here are a few examples of our contribution throughout the centuries.
Free from the pressures of tenure and grant proposals, Vatican astronomers can specialize in survey projects that last for decades:
- From 1891 until the 1950s, 18 nations including the Vatican, produced the Carte du Ciel (Map of the Heavens), the first photographic atlas of the stars.
- The first laboratory spectra of compounds found in stars was published by the Vatican Spectrochemical Lab from the 1930s until the 1970s.
- A project to characterize the colors of open cluster stars embedded in gas and dust clouds has been in progress since the 1980s.
- To match the famous Hubble Space Telescope survey of distant galaxies, Vatican astronomers helped produce a similar catalog of nearby galaxies.
- The Vatican Observatory has set up three sky camera systems to record bright bolides and faint meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere over Tucson and Rome.
The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) has served as a testbed for a number of other revolutionary ideas for modern telescope design.
- The primary mirror of the VATT was the first ever made using the rotating furnace technology developed by the Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona, which has gone on to revolutionize the creation of large, lightweight, telescope mirrors.
- The mirror is kept cooled to within a fraction of a degree of the ambient air temperature to eliminate thermal currents that blur starlight.
- The aiming and focusing of the telescope is computer-controlled, able to find objects to approximately 15 arc seconds (rms average), and its gear-free direct drive motors allow the telescope to track objects with less than an arc second of error.
- With the implementation of remote observing, observers need not be physically present on the mountaintop to control the telescope and operate its cameras.
- Instruments at the VATT include a super-sensitive thinned back-illuminated CCD camera; a medium dispersion spectrograph; and a special high-speed camera capable of taking up to 400 images per second.
A range of related sciences are also studied at the Vatican Observatory:
- The late Fr. Bill Stoeger SJ was a collaborator of Stephen Hawking at Cambridge at George Ellis in Cape Town on developing detailed models of the Big Bang, including ways that observations could test those models.
- Fr. Gabriele Gionti SJ has published pioneering work in String Theory and Quantum Gravity, the intersection of Quantum Theory and General Relativity.
- Br. Bob Macke SJ is the world’s expert on measuring the physical properties (density, heat capacity, etc.) of meteorites and other extraterrestrial samples. He has made several research trips to Apollo Moon Samples at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, and is a mission scientist of the NASA Lucy Mission to the Trojan asteroids.
- Fr. Richard D’Souza SJ has recently been granted time on the Hubble Space Telescope to observe galaxies relevant to his theoretical research on galaxy collisions and evolution.
The Vatican Observatory has a commitment to education, from training the K-12 teachers in North America to supporting postgraduate students in the developing world.
- Since 1986, our biennial Vatican Observatory Summer Schools (VOSS) have brought more than 400 postgraduate astronomy students, many from the developing world, to Castel Gandolfo for intense four week courses in astrophysics. Alumni/ae include key scientists at the European Southern Observatory and the Event Horizon Telescope.
- The Astronomy for Catholic Ministers and Educators (ACME) workshops bring parish priests and educators from K-12 Catholic schools for an immersion into the world of astronomy in Tucson and a workshop on how to teach science in the setting of Catholic schools and parishes.
- A good citizen in the local Tucson community, the Vatican Observatory Foundation sponsors science fair awards for students in Southern Arizona.
- Since their arrival in Tucson in the 1980s, Vatican astronomers have taught a series of astronomy courses both for undergraduates and graduate students in the Astronomy Department of the University of Arizona.
- Vatican astronomers are regular speakers, both in person and on-line, to high school science and religion classes in North America, Europe, Africa, and India.
The Vatican Observatory has played an active role in the larger society and the Church.
- The 1582 reform of the Gregorian Calendar was the first instance of active Vatican support for astronomy, resulting in both a more accurate yearly calendar and a simplified way of determining Easter and the other movable religious feasts.
- The work of Fr. Angelo Secchi SJ, director of the Roman College in the mid 19th century, included not only astronomy but the first systematic weather forecasting network in central Italy and extensive work in sanitation and public health throughout the territories that made up the Holy See at that time.
- Fr. Johann Hagen SJ, the first Jesuit director of the Observatory, was also the spiritual director of Blessed Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad, foundress of the Bridgettine Sisters.
- With the move of the Observatory from Rome to Castel Gandolfo in 1935, a large library was set up including historical astronomical books, some dating from the 16th century. This library, and the extensive Specola archives, have served as a vital resource for many historians of science and biographers of important astronomers, most recently a series of books about Fr. Angelo Secchi.
- During the papacy of Saint John Paul II, the observatory hosted at his direction a series of workshops with scientists and theologians on Divine Action in the Universe, leading to the publication of a series of scholarly books.
- The international role of the Vatican Observatory has included a number of important roles in the International Astronomical Union; participating in international conferences on time-keeping and the leap second; and co-hosting with the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs a workshop on the peaceful uses of space.