Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

Across the Universe: Three Galileo Sound Bites

This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2014 I had been invited to Australia this month [October, 2014] to give a science and religion talk to an association of Catholic professionals, but by the time I arrived in Brisbane my schedule had expanded into seven presentations, from school groups to university colloquia. Three of those groups asked to hear about Galileo. What makes Galileo such a touchstone for science/religion debates? Over his 30 year career Galileo was a friend of Popes and princes, Jesuits and Dominicans (at a time when those two orders could hardly agree about anything). His reflections on science and religion have been praised by Popes since Leo XIII. If it weren’t for a few unfortunate months in 1633, he’d be hailed universally as a hero of Catholic thought. But ever since the late 19th century, when the myth of a war between science and religion first captured the popular imagination, Galileo has been cited … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Return to Dust

This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2013 For about six months, our Moon had a moon of its own: a small artificial satellite called “Ladee”, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. Costing just under $300 million, a bargain, it is a little bit smaller than a Smart Car, a little bit larger than a Tardis: 7.7 feet tall, with a hexagonal cross section 4.7 feet in diameter. NASA launched it with an assembly of rockets built from old “Peacemaker” ICBM missiles. Originally designed to send nuclear bombs to the Soviet Union, these rockets are strictly controlled under a US-Russian arms treaty: the small facility at Wallops Island, off the Virginia coast, is one of the few places allowed to launch them. Thus, a bit before midnight on September 6, 2013, the rockets’ red glare was visible from nearby Washington DC and the eyes of the Congress who’d paid for it. These small rockets put the spacecraft … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Feeding Curiosity

This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2012 Finally [in 2012!], a planet has been discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri. That star, a neighbor of the Southern Cross, is actually a triplet of stars orbiting each other – as first discovered by a Jesuit missionary, Fr. Jean Richaud, some 300 years ago. And it’s is our nearest neighbor, merely four and a half light years away. Granted, the new planet orbits so close to its star (the middle member of the triplet) that its surface would be hotter than molten lava. But its existence gives hope that Alpha Centauri could also host another planet at a more temperate location, which we just haven’t seen yet. Unlike other detected planetary systems, you could actually envision a conversation with hypothetical intelligences inhabiting such a hypothetical planet; the conversation lag would be a mere nine years between exchanges. Could we go there? Half a century ago, it took Apollo about a week … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Clouds of witnesses

This column first ran in The Tablet in September, 2016 Scientists communicate with images. We want to know not simply one value, but how each value compares with other values measured in other situations: other times, other samples, other planets. Picturing our data as spots on a grid is worth a thousand numbers. At the 2016 meeting of the Meteoritical Society in Berlin, every paper relied on images with specks of many colors (each color also a different shape, for the the color-blind) representing different sets of data. No number is perfect; no single measurement is perfect. We repeat each measurement tens, hundreds, thousands of times. If you were to plot each measurement you’d get a cloud of dots and hope that the truth is somewhere within that cloud. The better your precision, the tighter your cloud, the better you can guess where the truth may lie. Instead of plotting all the thousands of individual measurements, though, it’s usually sufficient to … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Reaching out

This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2015 Eighty years ago, on September 29, 1935, Pope Pius XI dedicated new quarters and telescopes of the Vatican Observatory in his summer palace in Castel Gandolfo. To celebrate the anniversary,in September 2015 we held a symposium in Castel Gandolfo, including a visit to the old domes that Pius XI had dedicated. The party ended in a private audience in Rome with Pope Francis (less than 24 hours before he left for Cuba and the US). After giving us a short address, the Pope looked up and caught my eye. He smiled, and said, “Ah! The New Director!” It’s true. As of that day, I became the new director of the Vatican Observatory. (I actually didn’t completely believe it until I heard him say it.) Would I continue to write articles like these (for the Tablet)? Yes, as long as there’s a place for me. It’s not only because I love being … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Church of UFO

This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2014 “Preparing for Discovery,” a two day symposium at the US Library of Congress to discuss the possible impact on society of finding life in space, was my destination [September 2014]. Discovering life outside Earth would be a major advance in understanding biology; finding intelligent life would colour how we understand being human. But it’s a magnet for our hopes and fears. The field of astrobiology still has a hard time escaping the taint of “little green men.” Thus nearly all the speakers went out of their way to emphasize that they were Serious Scientists, viewing life and intelligence from a purely secular and, indeed, materialistic viewpoint. Constant reference was made to the “N=1” problem: how can you define life, much less intelligence, when the number of planets known to harbour life only equals one? Still, the laws of physics do provide some guideposts. And understanding the origin of that one … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Leaving the neighborhood

This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2013 At the annual European Planetary Science Congress [held in September 2013] in London, I was chatting with some postgraduate students about their studies of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. It’s the target of the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer mission that the European Space Agency hopes to launch in 2022. Europa’s subcrustal oceans may be the best place in our solar system to look for non-terrestrial life forms – an idea that I can claim credit for first proposing in print in 1975, based not so much on my computer models as on all the science fiction I’d been reading.           It’s exciting to see a crazy idea of mine (and, to be honest, of many other folk) turned into a space mission. But it’s sobering to realize I will be 78 years old in 2030, when it arrives. Indeed, not only were those postgraduate students not yet … Continue reading


Happy September the first… and happy Calendar Day! Yes, the official Vatican Observatory Foundation calendar is now available for sale: These calendars have been a tradition for more than ten years. Every month has an excellent astrophotograph, donated to us for our use, by some of the best amateur astrophotographers in the world. The 2018 calendar features work by Damian Peach from the UK (who did the cover photo above), Bernard Hubl from Austria, J-P Metsavainio from Finland, Adam Block from the University of Arizona… and more. Twelve… no, make that, fourteen fantastic images. (Counting the cover, and January 2019.) The calendar itself contains a delightfully eclectic selection of astronomically significant dates. And probably one or two typos, even though Dr. Brendan Thomson (who puts this together for us every year) and I must have proofread it at least three times each. Tell us of a typo and I will send you a cookie. The calendar is meant to be … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Myriad planets

This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2012 One hundred thousand planets. That’s the census we can infer for just one corner of the Milky Way Galaxy being watched by the Kepler space telescope, according to results presented [August 2012] at the International Astronomical Union in Beijing. Watching each of 145,000 stars in a bit of the Milky Way about 10 degrees wide over many years (three and a half years, [as of that time]), Kepler is looking for faint dips in brightness occurring on a regular basis that can be attributed to the passage, a “transit”, of a planet in front of that star. So far some 2300 candidate planets have been identified. (Many stars have more than one candidate.) But in order for us to see such a blip, the planet’s orbit must be lined up almost exactly between the star and us; we’re missing any planets whose orbits are tilted above or below their star … Continue reading

Bob Garrison (1936-2017)

A noted astronomer and great friend of the Vatican Observatory, Bob Garrison, died on August 13. The Specola’s Fr. Chris Corbally, a friend and close collaborator of Dr. Garrison, writes: After 81 years of life, and over 21 years of Parkinson’s, Bob Garrison died last Sunday morning. Today I received this obituary, written by his son, Lee, with input from his partner, Susanna. There’s a mention of how he treasured being a VOSS’ 90 faculty person. You will remember that he was my doctoral mentor at the University of Toronto, during which he became a lasting friend and collaborator. The Vatican Observatory hosted a Festschrift for Bob in Tucson in 2002, a few years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Yes, Bob had great regard for VO! I was able to congratulate him for reaching his 80th birthday when I visited him and Susanna in Toronto last November. His obituary reads: Dr. Robert (Bob) Frederick Garrison Born in 1936 to … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Super Earths

This column first ran in The Tablet in August 2015 Half the planets in our solar system are relatively small, rocky, and found near our sun. The other half are all significantly bigger, covered in giant atmospheres, and orbit far away from the sun. Explaining this trend in size and orbits is simple. If the planets formed from a disk of gas and dust (we’ve actually observed such disks around young stars) then planets forming farther from the sun are colder. If they’re far enough from the sun that water in the gas freezes into ice, they’ll jump up in size — a gas cloud has twice as much water as rocky material to snowball into a planet. And once a planet reaches a critical size, it captures gas from the nebula to make a thick atmosphere. So, inner rocky planets stay small; but once the icy outer planets get big enough, they jump up to even larger sizes. The … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Ice dreams

This is a slightly edited version of a column that first ran in The Tablet in August 2014 ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on August 6, 2014. Launched more than ten years earlier, upon arrival it took up an orbit around the sun that parallels the comet’s path, to keep the comet in its cameras from a distance of only a few tens of kilometers. The next two months saw intense preparation for the final stage of the mission: in mid November, 2014, a lander was sent to the comet’s dark surface with instruments to measure its composition in close up detail. (The original plan was for it to drill about 20 cm into the comet itself, to pierce the dusty crust and reach the icy material beneath. Alas, it landed into a shadowed region and was not able to get enough power to do its job or communicate with the orbiter… its fate is described here, on … Continue reading