La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit periodical that has been in publication since since 1850, has something new. As mentioned earlier here on Sacred Space Astronomy, it now sports a special section on the front page of its website. That special section is dedicated to the Vatican Observatory.
The new section is titled “A Riveder le Stelle: Novità dall’osservatorio astronomico vaticano”. That translates to “A Review of the Stars: News from the Vatican astronomical observatory”. More poetically, it is “To see the stars again: News from the Vatican astronomical observatory”.
However, it is in Italian. Here you can read the first two stories in English. The tagline for La Civiltà Cattolica says “Reflecting the Mind of the Vatican since 1850”. It is good to see that astronomy is on the mind!
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.
Twenty-five young astronomers from around the world are currently meeting at the Vatican Observatory’s headquarters in Castel Gandolfo (June 4-30). They have gathered for an intensive four-week Vatican Observatory Summer School (or VOSS) in astrophysics. Summer schools are among the most important works of the Observatory. Held since 1986, they have been strongly supported by the Popes; nearly every school has been granted a private audience with His Holiness. God willing, this summer re-starts a regular biennial schedule of summer schools, following a five-year hiatus caused by the Covid pandemic.
The theme of this eighteenth VOSS is “Learning the Universe: Data Science Tools for Astronomical Surveys”. Viviana Acquaviva (Flatiron Institute and City University of New York) and Željko Ivezić (University of Washington and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory) lead a summer school faculty that includes some of the world’s experts on applying the principles of machine learning to astrophysical studies. Fr. Alessandro Omizzolo, an astronomer at both the Vatican Observatory and INAF/Padua Observatory, serves as Dean of the School.
“As telescopes grow larger and the detectors on them become more sensitive, the amount of astronomical data that scientists need to understand has grown dramatically,” Fr. Omizzolo notes. Major astronomical surveys have already measured billions of celestial sources. Future surveys, such as that of the new Rubin Observatory, will produce catalogs of tens of billions of stars and galaxies, and trillions of diverse precise measurements.
The current summer school explores the science behind these surveys. It presents the concepts of Big Data and Machine Learning. It provides a hands-on data analysis experience that will help students use these data sets for their own astronomical projects. It also seeks to build a community that grows throughout this month.
During four decades the Vatican Observatory Summer Schools have touched the lives of more than 400 young astronomers—and also, when they return home, the lives of their friends and colleagues. The school is open to advanced astronomy undergraduates and beginning graduate students from around the world. Most of the students selected come from developing countries.
Tuition is free. Additional financial support is provided by donors through the Vatican Observatory Foundation. Therefore every student accepted can attend.
Previous VOSS faculty have included astronomers from the world’s leading observatories and universities. Among them have been Vera C. Rubin herself (part of the first VOSS); George and Marsha Reike, currently principal scientists on the infrared cameras carried by the James Webb Space Telescope; and Didier Queloz, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. Among notable VOSS alumni is Heino Falcke, a key player in the Event Horizon Telescope that first imaged the shadow of a black hole. Current faculty include, in addition to Acquaviva and Ivezić: Dalya Baron (Carnegie Observatories); Marc Huertas-Company (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias / Observatoire de Paris); Francisco Antonio Villaescusa Navarro (Flatiron Institute / Princeton University).
There were nearly two hundred applicants for the current school, who showed excellent potential to pursue an active career in astronomy. The primary selection criteria were academic promise and motivation, with selection limited so that no nation would have more than two representatives. Three young Jesuit scientists are also participating in the school: Dr. Gao Aiden from China, Fr. Williams Dhelonga from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Dr. Matthew Pinson from Australia. The final enrollment, including the Jesuits, includes participants from every continent: nine from Europe; nine from Latin America, six from Asia, two from Africa, and one each from Australia and Canada. Students include thirteen men and twelve women (gender was not a selection criterion), ranging in age from twenty-three to thirty-one.
Please pray for these young astronomers, and for all involved in this important Vatican Observatory program.
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