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Mission in the Skies : Priest-Astronomers in Arizona Follow a Long Vatican Tradition

January 24, 1987|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

TUCSON — Half a dozen Catholic priests periodically spend hours atop nearby mountain peaks gazing at the heavens. They peer only with the aid of high-powered telescopes, however, and they contemplate primarily in the context of astrophysics.

They are Jesuits who form the little-known Vatican Observatory Research Group, occupying offices at the University of Arizona and sharing time at Kitt Peak National Observatory and other telescopes.

"Our primary work is research," said Father Chris Corbally, whose work includes methods to distinguish the spectra of light from double, or binary, stars.

The team's contact with its employer, the Vatican, amounts to not much more than an annual report, usually loaded with technical language.

A Part of Progress

"We enjoy enormous freedom, enormous trust," Corbally said. "What the Vatican wants us to do is good research, which is a necessary part of Christian and world progress."

Father Richard Boyle, another priest-astronomer, said simply, "We are here because being a scientist is a valid endeavor of a Christian." Nevertheless, Boyle added: "We are available to answer questions about faith and address science and religion issues. We move in both circles."

Though outsiders hearing of the Vatican Observatory team for the first time might suspect that a particular religious agenda underlies the scientific mission, both priests said during an interview at the Jesuit residence here that they know of no such special directives.

Precedent Established

Nick Woolf, an astronomer with the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, said that it does not seem unusual to astronomers to encounter Jesuit priests active in the field. For one thing, astronomy graduate students read about Pietro Angelo Secchi, a 19th-Century Jesuit, who first studied and classified stars according to the spectra of light they release.

Pope Gregory XIII built the first papal observatory in 1579. Three years later, based on the calculations of two church astronomers, he announced a calendar reform that removed 10 extra days accumulated since the time of Julius Caesar. The Gregorian calendar eventually became the world standard for counting the length of the year.

Started 100 Years Ago

But the story of how astronomers on the Holy See's payroll wound up in the U.S. Southwest, and are close to making a significant contribution to the region's eminence in stellar research, began nearly 100 years ago.

The Vatican Observatory, or Specola Vaticana in Italian, was established in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII and was originally located behind St. Peter's Cathedral.

The lights of Rome made it increasingly difficult to see faint stars and forced the observatory to move, in 1933, to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. But even there "light pollution" was a problem.

The Vatican Observatory still maintains its headquarters and operates telescopes at Castel Gandolfo, but in 1981 the research team itself relocated in Tucson. It is estimated that between 200 and 300 astronomers make a livelihood here because of the 19 telescopes on the 7,000-foot Kitt Peak to the southwest and at least a dozen more on other peaks and on the University of Arizona campus.

'Outstanding Researchers'

"We feel very fortunate that they are associated with our group," said Buddy Powell, associate director of Steward Observatory. "They are outstanding researchers in their own right and they add international stature to our organization."

Indeed, the Vatican group is in the forefront of an effort here to put at least five technologically advanced telescopes on Mt. Hamilton, about a 100-mile drive from here. Pending U.S. Forest Service approval for the use of the land, the first of these proposed telescopes will be owned and operated by the Vatican Observatory.

The University of Arizona is contributing the $250,000 primary mirror, the technical staff and the site; the Vatican Observatory is raising $1 million from private sources to build a 2-meter telescope that employs a new design.

Highest Site in U.S.

Mt. Hamilton's 10,700-foot elevation is 1,000 feet higher than any other U.S. observatory site; thus it has less water vapor to distort the light. The proposed design also has a wider field of view than other telescopes of that size.

The major advantage for the Vatican group, however, is that rather than competing with other astronomers for limited access and time at the region's observatories, the priest-astronomers will be able to establish long-term programs.

"Discovery of new stellar objects is important," Boyle said, "but it takes years to understand what is found." In the case of a red giant, a star whose brightness varies greatly, "such an object needs regular observation, maybe once a month for two years, to get essential information," said Boyle, a Jesuit attached to the New England province who earned his doctorate at Georgetown University.

Questioned About Work

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