In the early 1980s, fleeing light pollution at its site in Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome, the Vatican Observatory opened an office at the University of Arizona solely with the idea of taking advantage of the large number of telescopes in the area accessible by astronomers affiliated with the University.
The idea that the Specola would be a participant with its own telescope first began in March, 1985, when a large mirror was spun-cast by what is now the Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory at Steward Observatory. This mirror, a 1.8-m diameter dish with an f/1.0 focus, was offered to the Vatican Observatory to be the heart of a joint new telescope project with Steward Observatory.
Once the decision was made to build a telescope around this mirror, the history of the VATT began.
In the fall of 1986, the Vatican Observatory Foundation was incorporated and the design of the telescope began. In February 1990, the telescope mount was delivered by L&F Industries to a test facility near Tucson. In the fall of 1990, the facility’s contractor, T.L. Roof, began site clearing on Mount Graham. In November 1991, polishing of the primary mirror was completed by the Mirror Lab. In May 1992, polishing of the secondary mirror was completed by the Space Optics Research Laboratory. In October 1992, the telescope mount and dome were installed on Mount Graham.
In September 1993, first light was obtained with the primary mirror; this was followed by the telescope’s dedication that same month. July 1994 saw first light with the secondary mirror. In January 1995, scientific observations began.
During the years immediately following 1995, the principal effort of the technical team went into further tuning and stabilization of the telescope’s very complex systems. Facility instrumentation was limited to CCD cameras, first one on loan from Columbia University and later a 2K camera from Steward’s Imaging
Technology Laboratory (ITL).
The scientific capabilities were enhanced by the brief appearances of visitor instrumentation: these included, in 1996, a low-resolution optical spectrograph provided by the Planetary Science Institute
of Tucson and the Arcetri (Italy) Near-Infrared Camera; and from late 2002 through 2003, CorMASS, a low-resolution infrared slit spectrograph.
The original 2K CCD camera was replaced in 2007 by a 4K imager, courtesy of ITL, which was capable of covering the whole 12 arcminute telescope field of view. In 2009 the National University of Ireland Galway located its Ultra Fast Imager (GUFI) at VATT; the agreement with NUI Galway continues to the present.
In the fall of 2010, after a development time nearly comparable with the history of VATT, a medium-resolution optical slit spectrograph, VATTSpec, was installed. In 2018, the original 4K imager was replaced by a new imager chip of similar dimensions from ITL.
In the twenty five years since first light, the telescope has had several major upgrades. In December 1998, the Vatican Observatory Foundation was awarded a Science Initiative Grant by The Kresge Foundation; the engineering projects completed under this grant in 2000 significantly improved the performance of VATT, most obviously in its imaging. In the summer of 2008 came the installation of new networking and computing equipment, provided through a grant from Hewlett Packard. As a result, the stability of the telescope’s networking, and so the efficiency of observations, increased enormously.
At the present time, the VATT is undergoing its most significant upgrade since its first light.
First, the VATT is becoming a robotic telescope, capable of being operated remotely without a human presence necessary at the mountaintop. This involves intensive upgrading of virtually all of the telescope’s infrastructure; much of this work has been funded by a generous grant from The Papal Foundation.
And second, this robotization is coordinated with that for the Steward Observatory’s other medium-sized telescopes, the 90-inch Bok telescope on Kitt Peak and the 61-inch Kuiper telescope on Mt. Bigelow. When all three are robotic, with each telescope employing a different instrument, simultaneous observations in different modes for the same program will be possible. This will make the three telescopes into a powerful and unique consortium: Arizona Robotic Telescope Network (ARTN).
The Alice P. Lennon Telescope and the Thomas J. Bannan Astrophysics Facility were made possible thanks to the generous support of many donors to the Vatican Observatory Foundation, most notably major donations from the Lennon and Bannan families.
Alice P. Lennon and Thomas J. Bannan:
Alice P. Lennon was the wife of Fred Lennon, who according to Forbes Magazine was the “world’s shiest billionaire.” He was the founder and chairman of the Swagelok Corporation of Cleveland. The VATT is the only one of his philanthropic efforts to be named after his wife; Fred Lennon was very private about his philanthropy.
Thomas Bannan ran his family’s company, Western Gear, which, among many other accomplishments, built the gears that turn the Space Needle. Over 200 Bannans (including VOF board member Katie Steinke) have gone to Santa Clara University in California. Katie’s podcast has more information about the Bannan Family and their long ties to the Vatican Observatory.
Information for this post came from the PDF: “Discovered at the VATT.”
VATT on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vatican_Advanced_Technology_Telescope
VATT in the News:
- Why the Pope’s telescope is in southern Arizona
- Searching for new worlds using Vatican telescope
- Vatican astronomers are part of two new discoveries in outer space