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: Reaching out
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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
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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
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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

Calendars!
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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
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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)
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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)
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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)
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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