The Vatican Observatory Foundation is the fundraising arm of the Vatican Observatory. The VOF is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization incorporated in 1986 in the state of Arizona to support the scientific and educational endeavors of the Vatican Observatory, including the maintenance and modernization of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT). While funding for Vatican Observatory salaries and administrative expenses comes directly from the Holy See, funding for the telescope and educational initiatives is derived solely from the generous support of the benefactors of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.
The Vatican Observatory Foundation has a two-fold mission: Supporting scientific research into the knowledge of the universe and education of the public based upon the knowledge derived from that research.
In the early 1990’s the marvels of technology and the commitment of a few visionary philanthropists made possible the creation of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, which empowered scientists to look with more acute “eyes” into the universe. Today, the VATT continues to provide stunning access to the heavens for researchers from around the globe. Combined with other technologies and the continued commitment of Vatican Observatory scientists, our work is literally pushing the boundaries of what we know and how we know it.
Each year members of the Observatory staff share their expertise by making educational presentations to over 5,000 persons from 90 educational, religious and academic groups. With recent technology the staff can now use the telescope remotely enabling expanded educational outreach programs for students and the public. Vatican Observatory scientists are playing an increasingly important role in the dialogue on science and religious faith.
To ensure the important work of the Vatican Observatory continues into the future, the Vatican Observatory Foundation was established in 1987 as a tax-exempt, charitable organization in the United States. The VOF’s first priority was funding the construction of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. With the generous support of the twelve founding benefactors the VATT was built and dedicated by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
The Foundation today remains committed to the VATT as its first priority, seeking philanthropic support for its ongoing maintenance and modernization. Recently this modernization has included the addition of a new spectrograph, the use of the Galway Ultra Fast Imager (GUFI) and the development of remote observing capability. All of which serve to enhance research at the observatory and the foundation’s educational mission. From international seminars and presentations to local educational outreach programs for students and the general public it is our mission to promote and encourage the scientific research of the Vatican Observatory.
In its historical roots the Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest astronomical institutions in the world. The first foreshadowing of the Observatory can be traced to Pope Gregory XIII and the constitution of a committee to study the scientific data and implications involved in the reform of the Julian calendar in use since 45 B.C. That calendar contained a tiny error in determining the length of the year, and by the late 1500s the error had grown large enough to make timing of Church holy days out of sync with their respective seasons. The committee working on the project included Fr. Christoph Clavius, a Jesuit mathematician from the Roman College, who expounded and explained the reform of the calendar.
From that time, the Papacy has manifested an interest in and support for astronomical research. In fact, several pontifical observatories were established in Rome, including the Observatory of the Roman College, the Observatory on the Capitoline Hill and the Specola Vaticana (or Vatican Observatory). These early traditions of observational astronomy reached their climax in the mid-nineteenth century with the research of the Jesuit, Fr. Angelo Secchi, at the Roman College. The most prolific of those who first classified stars according to their spectra, Fr. Secchi is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Astrophysics” and his technique remains important in modern research.
Following the unification of Italy in 1870, the pontifical observatories became state property. Despite this setback, the Vatican continued its support of astronomy, and in an effort to counteract the accusations that there was a conflict between the Church and science, Pope Leo XIII formally re-founded the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory) in 1891.
From a hillside behind St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican astronomers studied the heavens, taking part in an international program to map the whole sky. By the 1930s, however, the city’s lights had begun to blot out the fainter stars, and in 1935 Pope Pius XI moved the Observatory to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, a town in the Alban Hills about 25 kilometers outside Rome.
Urban light pollution once again caught up with the astronomers at Castel Gandolfo, and in 1980 they established a new division of the Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, an internationally recognized center for astronomy. This location in the United States is called the Vatican Observatory Research Group (VORG) and is hosted by the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.
New technology developed by Roger Angel and colleagues at the Steward Observatory offered significant promise for developing a more powerful telescope at considerable cost savings. Collaborating with the Steward Observatory, the Vatican Observatory built the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mt. Graham in southeastern Arizona. Funding for the project was only possible with the generosity of private, philanthropic support. Hence, in 1987 the Vatican Observatory Foundation was established.
Dedicated in 1993, the VATT utilizes some of the most advanced and innovative optics, electronics and mechanics available — once again positioning the Vatican at the forefront of astronomy.