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: 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

Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars

The column first ran in The Tablet in August 2013 The Milky Way arched over my head, a swath of light through an inky-black sky streaking from Cassiopeia on the northern horizon, through the cross of Cygnus, to the hook of Scorpius just above the horizon due south. I was on a hilltop in southern Vermont attending this year’s annual convention of amateur telescope makers known as Stellafane. The name, we were told, means “shrine to the stars.” It’s not only the dark skies that attract amateurs to this location. Ninety years ago a group of twenty precision toolmakers in the small mill town of Springfield, Vermont, first gathered to share their knowledge of mirror-making and show off their equipment. In 1923, if you wanted a small telescope to look at the stars you either paid a small fortune or you made it yourself. Grinding a mirror into the parabolic shape that can focus faint starlight into a bright point … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven

A slightly shorter version of this column first ran in The Tablet in August 2012 Scientists who do experiments need material to experiment on. Thirty years ago, a grad student friend of mine ran into a problem researching motor skill development in infants because there were too many other students in her field writing theses, and not nearly enough infants available in her university town with parents willing to have them studied. (Ironically, my friend was herself pregnant at the time. Her baby, now grown, defended her own psychology dissertation in the fall of 2012; she’s now a psychology professor herself. And a mom, as well.) In meteoritics we cannot advertise for samples, much less produce them ourselves. We have to wait for our subject matter to fall, like manna, from the heavens. In 2012, however, we were fortunate to have two fascinating new meteorites land at our feet. They were each the subject of special sessions at the annual … Continue reading

Diary: Where does the money go? (Part 2)

In a previous post, I noted that the Vatican Observatory Foundation (which sponsors this blog) has to raise about $800,000 a year to cover its commitments, and at the moment we are running very much behind. On the order of $300,000 a year behind, to be exact. That’s… distressing. What do we plan to do about it? Lots of things, but one in particular concerns you, the readers of this blog. The Catholic Astronomer has been around for about three years, and every year our readership is doubled and our support has likewise increased. Let’s just give an overview of where we are as of the end of July, 2017: We have 584 people who subscribe to our free email notification whenever there is a new posting. In addition, we publicize these on the Foundations’s Facebook site (just under 3,900 followers), and on our Vatican Observatory twitter site (6,600 followers) and the Foundation twitter site (1,400 followers). We get on … Continue reading

Diary: Where does the money go? (Part I)

In a recent post, I put out a short beg for folks to actually subscribe at $10 a month (more if you want!) and keep this blog, and the Foundation, going. This has brought up, quite rightly, a question about where exactly this money goes. The first item, of course, is to pay for the cost of this blog itself. At the moment, that’s covered. But the bigger goal is to have surplus from this funding go to support the Vatican Observatory Foundation and its works. What is it that the Foundation does? If you want to know what the Vatican Observatory Foundation has been up to lately, click here for a pdf of our most recent newsletter. What about the details of our funding? Where does it come from, where does it go? That’s covered in our annual report, (click here). The numbers in the annual report are the accountant’s numbers, which is different from actual cash flow. For one … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice

This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2015 The wonderful excitement about Pluto, visited by the New Horizons spacecraft [July 2015], has resurrected the old issue of defining a “planet”. But why? Most people approaching this question have one clear goal: they want Pluto to be a planet. Once you realize that, you can make your definition clear and simple: “A planet is one of the bodies that I was taught was a planet when I was a child.” Of course, such a definition is useless for any other purposes. The IAU, which defined Pluto and similar bodies as “dwarf planets” back in 2006, needed a definition so it could name such objects and the features on them, to know whose committee and what set of rules will apply. But there’s another aspect to this issue. Fifteen years ago I was involved in a research program studying the Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNO) that orbit alongside Pluto, comparing their shapes … Continue reading

Proclaiming the Heavens

Since February, our daily readership here at the Catholic Astronomer site has doubled. That’s the good news. However, the number of folks who are subscribers or member/supporters hasn’t doubled. A lot of people read this site via the Vatican Observatory Foundation Facebook page, which is great. But you may not realize that we depend on paying supporters of the blog to keep this site operating. We pay each of our bloggers – not much, but enough to maintain the principle that writers deserve an income, the laborer is worthy of a wage. (1 Timothy 5:18, for those Catholics in the audience who don’t know their scripture!) And there are other technical support costs. Only your donations can keep this operation moving. Of course, what I am hoping is that any donations above our costs (which, thankfully, we do have) can grow to become a major support for the work of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. It takes a lot of money … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Where’s the olivine?

This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2014 It was a beautiful theory, while it lasted. Most meteorites are well-compressed lumps of primordial dust and little beads of rock. But some are chips of lava, bits of some small asteroid that melted and sorted itself into a small iron core and a crust of frozen basaltic lava. We’ve even seen one such asteroid: the spectra colors of Vesta (the brightest, and second-biggest, of the asteroids) uniquely match these basaltic meteorites [in particular, the Howardite-Eucrite-Diogenite meteorites known familiarly as the HED meteorites]. When a mixture of various minerals gets hot, as inside a volcano, only some of those minerals melt; they make the lava that erupts to the surface, leaving behind other unmolten minerals deep below the volcano. These meteorite lavas should behave the same way. During my student days in the 1970s, we calculated that that for every basaltic meteorite, there should be about four times as much … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Hidden inclusions

This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2013 I was in a state of high excitement (or what passes for such when you’re sixty years old): the Pope was coming to lunch with our Jesuit community at the Vatican Observatory! Meanwhile, I was also preparing a paper for the annual Meteoritical Society meeting, and I had just noticed a wonderful correlation in my data. These sorts of insights are as rare as Papal visits… if indeed I had really made one. I’ve been studying iron meteorites; and it’s been hard work. For one thing, they are, quite literally, hard – lumps of nickel-iron, too hard to cut up easily to see what’s inside. I’ve seen iron meteorites being cut at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC; their saw sits in a room the size of gymnasium, makes an awful racket, and spews water everywhere. (The water cools the meteorite while a diamond-encrusted wire scrapes through it.) When you do … Continue reading

From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!

This article was first published in The Tablet in July, 2012 “How will the discovery of the Higgs Boson impact the Catholic Scientific Community?” asked one panicked email I received soon after CERN announced its discovery. “How can the new discovery and our belief be reconciled?” So many misconceptions in one email… where to start? Emails like this, not to mention all sorts of press inquiries, came to us at the Vatican Observatory following the announcement by CERN that they had detected a “a new particle in the mass region around 126 GeV… the results are preliminary but dramatic… we know it is a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.” The press, if not the scientists, immediately jumped on the news, calling it the discovery of the Higgs Boson (something that the CERN press release was careful not to do) which they inevitably referred to as “The God Particle.” Right away, the internet was filled with instant pundits giving opinions … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Hows of Science

This column first ran in The Tablet in July, 2012 We met this month [July 2012] in a small pensione in Loreto, next the cathedral built around the famous “flying house” (reputed to be the home of the Blessed Virgin, transported from Palestine to Italy – some say by angels – in the 13th century) to plan the next steps for our Vatican Observatory. What’s the future for our telescope in Arizona, and the fundraising that supports it? What about converting our old telescope domes in Castel Gandolfo into a visitor center? But a big topic for the group was welcoming seven young astronomers to our group. They come from many countries – three from the US, plus an Italian, a Czech, a Congolese, and an Indian. They’ve studied a variety of scientific topics, from theorizing on subatomic strings to observing meteor showers, at traditional PhD programs in universities around the world. And their immediate challenge now is trying to fit the style … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Fast changes

This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2013 Summer began [in 2013] on Friday morning, 21 June, at 5:14 am GMT…in the northern hemisphere, of course; south of the equator, it’s winter. [The summer solstice 2017 in Northern Hemisphere occurred at 4:24 am GMT on Wednesday, June 21.] This definition is based on the precise orientation of the Earth in its orbit. The Earth is tilted relative to its orbit, and like a gyroscope its spin axis stays pointed in the same direction, year round. In a convenient coincidence for navigators, our north pole is pointed near the star Polaris. Polaris is not directly above the Sun; it’s directly above Earth’s tilted spin axis. In June, the Earth is in the part of its orbit where it’s on one side of the Sun, and Polaris is on the other side. The northern half of the Earth, tilted towards Polaris, is also tilted towards the Sun; that’s why it gets warmer. The … Continue reading