Top Vatican Official Visits Vatican Astronomers at UA

The visit signifies the Holy See's 'unique interest' in its scientific research institute, Vatican astronomers say.
Feb. 27, 2009
Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo
Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo
Lajolo (left) and Mirror Lab director Roger Angel are pictured beside part of the mold wall that will be used in making a giant mirror at the lab later this year.
Lajolo (left) and Mirror Lab director Roger Angel are pictured beside part of the mold wall that will be used in making a giant mirror at the lab later this year.
Lajolo (left) and HiRISE project leader Alfred McEwen of the Lunar and Planetary Lab view stereo images of Mars at the HiRISE operations center.
Lajolo (left) and HiRISE project leader Alfred McEwen of the Lunar and Planetary Lab view stereo images of Mars at the HiRISE operations center.

After a long flight from Rome that landed him in Tucson on Wednesday, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo spent Thursday with Vatican Observatory and University of Arizona astronomers, touring their campus offices and laboratories and hearing presentations on their latest research.

Lajolo is the President of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State. As the executive in charge of the day-to-day running of Vatican City, the cardinal reports about the Vatican Observatory directly to Pope Benedict XVI.

Provost Meredith Hay welcomed Lajolo at Steward Observatory on Thursday morning.

Vatican and Steward Observatory astronomers then accompanied the cardinal to HiROC, the operations center for HiRISE, or the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, where he talked with Alfred McEwen of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory about the spectacular images of Mars coming from the camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Mirror Lab director Roger Angel gave the cardinal a tour of the unique mirror-making facility beneath the football stadium, where giant mirrors for the next-generation Giant Magellan Telescope and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope are now being ground and polished. Angel also gave the cardinal a preview of new solar energy technologies being developed at the lab.

"I am truly grateful to be here," Lajolo said at the Vatican Observatory Foundation's annual research seminar, which was held in the Ss. Peter and Paul church sanctuary Thursday afternoon.

The cardinal thanked Vatican Observatory director Rev. Jose Funes and Vatican Observatory Foundation director Rev. George V. Coyne for the invitation to visit Tucson and to "see the amazing world of the observer – those who seek the truth about our universe, about God and about humanity."

Lajolo's visit coincides with the International Year of Astronomy 2009, celebrated by nations the world over to mark Galileo's first scientific use of the telescope 400 years ago. The special astronomy year "is of particular interest to the Vatican Observatory because (the observatory's) roots go back to Galileo Galilei," the cardinal said.

The Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical observatories in the world, traces its origins to Pope Gregory's reform of the calendar in 1582. Since 1935, it has been based in the papal summer home of Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.

The observatory opened its dependent research center, called the Vatican Observatory Research Group, at the UA's Steward Observatory offices in Tucson in 1980 to take advantage of southern Arizona's premier astronomical facilities.

Vatican astronomers inaugurated the 1.8-meter Lennon Telescope and its adjoining Bannan Astrophysics Facility, known together as the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, or VATT, at the Mount Graham International Observatory in southeastern Arizona in 1993.

The VATT mirror, cast in the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab's giant rotating furnace and polished by the lab's innovative "stressed-lap" technology, was the prototype telescope for the Large Binocular Telescope, the world's most powerful optical-infrared telescope, also located on Mount Graham.

Lajolo will tour the VATT and Mount Graham before returning to Rome.

"The first priority of the Vatican Observatory is scientific research, and the VATT is our tool," Funes said at the research seminar. "We are priests and religious men, but we also are scientists. We are both. Astronomy is our main service to the church."

Funes briefed Pope Benedict XVI on the Vatican Observatory and its plans for the future at a meeting in September.

The Vatican astronomers' mission is "to build bridges between the church and the world of science," Funes told foundation members. "We have the strong support of the Holy Father in this."

"We have a promising future," Funes said, citing exceptional young astronomers who are joining Vatican Observatory.

These include the Rev. Pavel Gabor, a scientist who has joined the active search for extraterrestrial life and is finishing his doctorate in astrophysics in Paris, and the Rev. David Brown, a native of New Orleans who studies the hottest starts in the universe and finished his doctorate at Oxford University. Both spoke at the foundation seminar Thursday.

Funes described Vatican Observatory initiatives for IYA2009, including an expanded, special session of the international summer school that has been taught at the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo every two years since 1986.

The American Astronomical Society recently awarded Coyne, Vatican Observatory director emeritus, the Van Biesboeck Prize in part for organizing the summer school that "has built a distinctive community for career support, international collaborations, and development of astronomy across the globe."

Approximately 85 percent of Vatican Observatory Summer School attendees are still active in research or teaching in astronomy and astrophysics, and many are now prominent astronomers.

UA astronomers and planetary scientists have taught at several of the summer schools and are involved in organizing the "super" summer school to be held at the Vatican Observatory this year from June 21 to June 26.

The Vatican Observatory is also planning an exhibit that will open at the Vatican Museums in October, a weeklong study session on astrobiology organized by UA astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in November, a "400 years of the Telescope" project, and a soon-to-be-published book on astronomy and the Vatican written by Vatican astronomers.