First published in The Tablet in June, 2007; we published it here in 2015
In early 2007, a team lead by Stéphane Udry of the Geneva Observatory announced the discovery around the red dwarf star Gliese 581 of a planet that is only eight times the mass of Earth and about 50 per cent bigger in radius. Orbiting close to its sun, its year is less than two weeks long; but because that star is so small and dim compared to ours, temperatures on the planet should range between zero and 40 degrees Celsius (about 30 to 100 Fahrenheit). Room temperature. Water should be liquid there, perhaps covering its surface with oceans ripe for life.
At least, I hope it’s covered in oceans. Swimming would be easier than walking on a planet where the gravity is three and a half times that of Earth. The star is only 20 light years away from us; robot spaceships in the next 100 years or so could reach such a place and send back data that, travelling at the speed of light, might reach us before our grants run out.
At the Vatican Observatory that summer, we were hosting a school of 26 university students and postgraduates in astronomy, gathered from 22 countries, to spend four weeks studying the search for extraterrestrial planets. It was our eleventh summer school since 1986. As they learn about the search for new worlds, I am reminded myself of the new world we find ourselves in since that first school 21 years ago.
Back then, we had nine planets in our solar system and none elsewhere; the first number has dropped to eight, as the second had grown to more than 230. [As of 2015 we had confirmed nearly two thousand exoplanets; by 2019. the count has grown to over 4000.] Back then, the school was staffed by Americans at an observatory run by Americans; today our observatory director is from Argentina, and this year’s school is directed by a professor from Chile, himself a student of that first school.
And of course, the 2007 students were barely born when that first school was held. We had fewer students from “developing” nations at this school, in part because nations that were “developing” 20 years ago are well developed today. Reflecting the trend in universities everywhere, the majority of our students are now women. And the majority have arrived with their own laptops.
Twenty years ago we taught that a fundamental point to be explained in any theory of planet formation was that rocky planets were found close to the sun, with gas giants further away. But most of the planets discovered to date are “hot Jupiters”, gas giants orbiting quite near their stars. Yes, they’re the easiest to find; but that they exist at all is a shock to our old theories. And we’re finding them at a rate of one out of every 15 stars we’ve looked at.
Does this mean that our old theories were completely wrong? If science keeps changing its mind, why do we bother teaching it? Is what we’re teaching these new sets of students just as likely to be in error? Why should they have faith in our reasoning?
Actually, our old theories were perfectly fine. We merely needed to add one more element to them – in this case, the ability of planets to “migrate” from their original orbits. (That process explains both the hot Jupiters around other stars, and how Neptune kept Pluto from growing into a planet.) Indeed, science works precisely because it’s not afraid to admit it was incomplete and to add new elements to its re- ceived wisdom.
By 2007 we had a new Pope as well. Welcoming these science students in a private audience during the first week of the school, he quoted to us, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” It’s from John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio; Pope Benedict, too, was not afraid to build something new on the wisdom of the past.
(Our next summer school will be held in June, 2020, with the topic of Centres of Galaxies. Applications are open now, and close in October; applicants must be students at the end of undergraduate or beginning graduate studies who show evidence that they intend to pursue a career in astronomy.)
It's no joke, alas; I am under doctor's orders to stay home, and go to bed when I am tired (which is most of the time), after having cancelled half of my events scheduled for June. That, under the orders of several friends who are doctors and several other friends who are genuine and certified Jewish Mothers!
First, the business: I did a brief update in May showing 129 subscribers and on April 16 we had a reach of 8465 readers. Well, as of today, we have 131 paid subscribers and 8701 people who get notified of new postings. We continue to grow, but not nearly fast enough to keep us in business. Please tell more people about our site; and if you can, please subscribe at a rate of $10 a month (that's two visits to Dunkin Donuts for me) or $100 per year.
That's also no joke. As for the exhaustion... read on!
Let's just outline what I'll be talking about below the fold:
- Some links to great interviews that some excellent media folks did for me in New Zealand
- A description of my train travels in the eastern US... including my commencement address to Gonzaga College High School!
So... come along and see!
In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!
This column from The Tablet was first published in June, 2018
The students of the Vatican Observatory’s biennial summer school (2018's year’s topic, stellar variability in the era of large surveys) were received by Pope Francis in a private audience on June 14, 2018. Introducing them, I mentioned to the Pope that along with four weeks of heavy astrophysics our school is also including special lectures to reflect on not only what we are studying, but why we study it.
“Why does the Vatican have an Observatory?” That common question begs the bigger one, why anyone does astronomy. Contrary to what our culture preaches, astronomy doesn’t make you rich, powerful, or sexy. (Maybe that’s why my Jesuit vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience felt so natural.) What astronomy does do, however, is give you the space to contemplate questions bigger than “what’s for lunch?”
Doing science is a way of becoming intimate with creation, and thus with the Creator. The urge to know the truth above all else is common to all scientists, even those who don’t recognize that their devotion to truth is a devotion to God. To me it is an act of prayer.
But there’s a deeper level to the question. Why does any individual person choose to become an astronomer? Interviewing each of our 25 summer school students, I’ve found that no matter what culture or country they come from, one common theme is the role our families play in our vocations.
Certainly in my case, it was not so much “Our Father” as my father. My dad would describe his childhood lying out on the roof of the garage behind his home in suburban Boston, watching the stars and waiting to see if one would “fall.” Seeing zeppelins flying overhead, he dreamt of being a pilot. Instead, his bad eyesight and higher math skills earned him a spot as a navigator in the US Army Air Corps… where they taught him the stars for navigation.
He guided a squadron of B-17s to Hawaii to look for the Japanese fleet before the Battle of Midway, and then as part of the 306th Bomber Group he was among the first Americans flyers to come to Britain in late 1942. By April 1943 he’d been shot down over Belgium and sent to Stalag Luft III. There, his agile mind was set not to solve astronomical problems but to write letters home that simultaneously courted a certain sweet Irish-American girl in New York while also containing coded messages of military intelligence.
After the war his writing skills landed him a job as a journalist. From him I learned writing and storytelling… and the names of the brightest stars. Meanwhile, his job paid for my education in planetary sciences at MIT. Years later, writing these science columns for The Tablet, I’d always email him my latest work for his comments before submitting it. (He got his first home computer in the late 1970s and was an early user of the internet.) Once, when asked for a review for a book he’d bought online, he replied, “I am delighted to oblige, because it's a great book; and because it's edited by my son. It cost me $26 from Amazon. And Guy’s tuition at MIT.” He’d bought it before I could send him a copy. He explained, “When I passed ninety, I stopped waiting for things.”
At our audience on June 14, Pope Francis spoke privately to offer me his personal condolences… my father, Joseph Edwin Consolmagno, died on June 11, 2018. He was 100 years old.
This column first appeared in The Tablet in May, 2007; we republished it here in May, 2015
In 2006-2007, I took a year-long chair at Fordham University, where I was required to present a public lecture each semester. In the fall term, I simply gave a reading from my latest book-in-progress. But the spring was trickier. Mostly I wanted an excuse to show pretty pictures; why else did they hire an astronomer to speak? Looking for an academic hook to hang my talk on, I decided to use these images to explore the nature of beauty.
What makes pictures of stars and planets beautiful? Is a human connection – the astronaut in the frame, the dot in the background that’s actually planet Earth – necessary for us to awed by nature? Does knowing the science behind the image add to its beauty?
These questions had been inspired by my ongoing conversations with a Fordham philosophy professor, Sister Joan Roccasalvo CSJ. Her take centers on the inherent philosophical nature of beauty. She insists it is more than just in the eye of the beholder. Is beauty objective or subjective? I suspect the truth is beyond the either/or dichotomy of the question.
That inevitably seems to be the case when faced with intractable philosophical conflicts. I see it in the way some non-biologist theologians (and non-theological biologists) try to take the randomness in evolution as a repudiation of God’s design and meaning. They don’t realize that it isn’t merely a case of one or the other.
After all, a roulette wheel gives wonderfully random results precisely because it was designed to do so, and its results have great meaning for those who’ve placed their bets. The joy of playing cards is how it incapsulates in a game the familiar experience of life: winning or losing depends on how well we determine the play, according to strictly designed rules, of cards we are randomly dealt.
On the web you can find clever computer programs that combine stock academic phrases, chosen at random, to form a coherent set of sentences and paragraphs following the rules of English grammar. The result may be meaningless per se, but these programs have a deeper purpose. They’re an exercise in understanding the nature of language; and a satiric reminder that an awful lot of academic production is indistinguishable from such meaningless cant. But similar programs that write “poetry” sometimes, by chance, create juxtapositions of words that we can recognize as beautiful -- just as we find beauty in Jackson Pollack’s random spatters of paint.
More often, of course, they read as badly as my student’s term papers. A fellow professor commiserated that his students’ essays seemed to be nothing more than an arrangement of clichés randomly strung together. Of course, he remarked, it also made him see how much of his own conversation was just as shop-worn.
Then I found one student who had left nothing to chance by lifting her clichés, a paragraph at a time, off the Internet. It was easy to spot. The clash of styles (none of them sounding like a college sophomore) rang discordantly, unbeautifully, on my ear. And so, in my final days at Fordham, I have had to launch a proceeding on academic integrity. More paperwork for me; more problems for the student, whose plagiarism will cost her not only a passing grade but the loss of her financial aid.
It is our human lot to deal with the unpredictable, and construct meaning with the elements found randomly at hand. Sometimes we’re dealt an unwinnable hand. Sometimes we try to rig the game, and when we are caught we have to pay the price.
Both failure and sin are the cost of human freedom, God knows. That’s why, on the first Pentecost Sunday, He sent us not an answer book, but a good Lawyer.
This column first appeared in The Tablet in April, 2007; we ran it here again in May, 2015
The e-mail came from the Fordham student who’s been working in the lab with me this term. “Some of the physics students have asked me to pass this on to you: they don’t want to admit it, but they’re totally lost.”
There’s only a couple of weeks left of my sabbatical year at Fordham. I had asked the physics department if I could teach the class on electricity and magnetism; when I learned this material myself as an undergraduate, it had changed my life. I wanted the opportunity to pass the joy on to some of the brightest kids I’ve ever taught.
They are totally lost? That’s no surprise; when I was a student, at this point I was lost too. The mathematics of electromagnetic fields has mystified science undergraduates even before Maxwell first summarized them with his famous equations. And the dizziness my students are feeling is nothing compared to how the world of physics felt when it finally understood what Maxwell was saying.
Other scientists, Ampere and Faraday and Coulomb and Gauss, had described mathematically how electric currents generate magnetic forces, and how moving magnets in turn create electric currents. Everyone knew that there was a connection between electricity and magnetism, even if no one knew why. The easiest shorthand way to calculate the way real objects are moved around by those forces was to invent a mathematical fiction called a “field” associated with any given physical arrangement of wires and charges. Insert a new charge or magnet into this “field” and you could quickly calculate how it, too, would be pulled about as a result.
But the fields were just calculating fictions; or so it seemed, until Maxwell’s work. He assembled the equations deduced by Ampere and the others, and just from looking at the poetry of how the electric field’s equations mirrored magnetic field equations he had a bold insight. With a simple mathematical manipulation, he derived two identical equations for magnetic and electric fields in empty space, showing that for each field, the change of the change in space equalled the change of the change in time (times a constant).
I did that derivation on the board, and looked expectantly to my class.
Totally lost. Then one student’s eyes widenend. “Oh, my God,” he breathed. “It’s a wave.”
“The speed…” he said.
“Speed squared, actually. Work it out.”
“It’s the speed of light!”
“What travels like a wave, at the speed of light?”
Maxwell had shown that those mathematical fictions called fields were in fact the essence of what we see with our own eyes when we look at anything.
A changing electric field generates a changing magnetic field that generates a changing electric field, and the whole system propagates through space at the speed of light. That’s not only how light propagates; it’s also how radio waves are transmitted, how electrical energy is carried into our homes, how musical waves are carried by speaker wires to our iPod headphones. Everything electrical in our households is derived from these equations.
Even more, these equations led Einstein to realize the need for his theory of relativity, and eventually inspired the quantum revolution. (And relativity ultimately explains the connection between electricity and magnetism.) Before Maxwell shed light on the nature of light itself, the world of physics was indeed totally lost; we just didn’t know it.
It resonates with a familiar ring: fields, thought to be “symbolic”, turn out to be real, just as the resurrected Christ shows himself not symbolically but actually alive, really the son of God, propagating his message through the emptiness of time from then to now. And we need to realize that we’re totally lost, before we can begin to see.
(If you want to read more about light, and Maxwell, you can download a pdf of my little book The Way to the Dwelling of Light from here, on the Vatican Observatory Foundation website.)
It's been well over a month since I last updated you on where we stand with the membership of this site... since then I had a wonderful trip to New Zealand (and Australia), where I gathered many memories... and, on the plane home, a nasty cold. Once I am over that I'll post a longer (members only) diary. But for now, just to let you know...
- We launched our new site name and design; I hope you like it!
- As part of the design we don't list the total "reach" anymore, but I know that continues to grow.
- As part of the new launch we mentioned that there is a donor willing to match new subscription and other donations up to $50,000 this year! And to that end, we have added five new donors, so thanks! We are up to 129 subscribers. (We can do more, of course; there must be a few more folks out there who will support this site and the work of the Vatican Observatory Foundation to the tune of $10 a month or $100 per year. If we had a thousand, instead of a hundred...)
- There is a drive underway to support alumni of our biennial Summer School to help them travel to a reunion at the end of this summer; if you're associated with the summer school or just like the work that it does, chip in a bit and help some of the younger scientists get back to Castel Gandolfo this August!
- Don't forget, if you are in the Washington DC area, our annual Vatican Observatory Foundation seminar in astronomy:
This column first ran at the end of May, 2018, in The Tablet. Why I wound up with two columns in May that year is mysterious to me...
The summer of 2018 marked the 200th birthday of Father Angelo Secchi, the Jesuit priest often called the Father of Astrophysics. In May I participated in a celebration of his work held in his home town of Reggio Emilia, northern Italy. Speakers covered topics drawn from his life and career, starting with a wonderful biographical sketch by Ileana Chinnici, a historian of astronomy at the Palermo Observatory (and an adjunct Vatican astronomer).
Like Galileo, Secchi had a knack for the popularisation of science, and for becoming embroiled in political controversy. The revolutions of 1848 forced Secchi to flee Rome for two years – he spent the enforced sabbatical at Stonyhurst College and at Georgetown University – and he was nearly forced to leave again after 1870 by the manoeuvrings of enemies in the anti-clerical Italian government.
Before Secchi, astronomy had been little more than the study of the positions of the stars and planets and the calculation of their orbits. It had more or less meant working in the same way as Tycho Brahe and Kepler had been doing back in the 16th and 17th century (and indeed in ways pioneered by the ancient Greeks, Hipparchus and Ptolemy). That had had a very practical purpose: the ancients wanted to be able to predict planetary positions in order to improve their astrology, while the national observatories of Secchi’s time wanted more accurate star positions for better navigation.
Secchi was the first person to think about those lights in the sky as places with their own compositions and histories. Others had noted that the colours of sunlight could tell us about the Sun’s chemical composition; Secchi used this technique, spectroscopy, to measure the spectra of thousands of stars, looking for patterns and ways to classify them.
It was known that Mars makes an especially close approach to Earth every 22 years or so, but no one before Secchi had bothered to actually try to inspect the surface of Mars and make sense of its markings. Secchi’s work inspired the pioneer maps of Mars made by Giovanni Schiaparelli after the next favorable conjunction, 22 years later. Schiaparelli and – infamously – the American businessman and astronomer Percival Lowell, borrowed Secchi’s term canali (“channels”) to describe “canals” that later turned out to be optical illusions. By contrast, the features that Secchi described as canali are real.
The comparison of Secchi with Galileo could be extended to their combative personalities. Each made enemies in the turbulent political times in which they lived. Secchi was subject to no shortage of slander, and English translations of his most important works were suppressed by some English scientists (such as Norman Lockyer, founder of the journal Nature), who perhaps did not want to reveal how much of his work anticipated their own. For that reason alone, the celebration of the bicentennial of Secchi’s birth in 2018 offers a wonderful opportunity to rectify that slight. It is also a welcome chance to introduce the world to a fascinating and colourful character.
One final comparison: Galileo died quietly in his home in Arcetri, at the age of 78. Secchi died at the much younger age of 59, his health worn down by the stresses of his travels and his political fights. Of course, had Galileo died at 59, he’d never have had to endure his infamous trial.
This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2018
Compared to the student riots and political assassinations of 1968, the United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space that year caused relatively little stir. Back then, of course, only two nations were in any position to explore or use outer space. It was easy for the rest of the world to give lip service to the ideal that the space resources were the heritage of all humankind. Fifty years on, though, things are changing.
In June, 2018, the UN’s Office of Outer Space Affairs held a fiftieth anniversary meeting: UNISPACE +50. To set the stage, the organizers decided to hold a small workshop where their diplomats could meet informally with scientists and engineers active in understanding how we’ll be using space resources, from satellite data to actual asteroid mining, in the near future. They asked the Vatican Permanent Mission to the UN for help organizing this workshop; and so during Holy Week it was our pleasure to host some three dozen scientists, diplomats, and astronauts at the Vatican Observatory headquarters in Castel Gandolfo.
The seminar was held under the “Chatham House Rule” where specific speakers and comments are confidential, but the general trend of the meeting can be reported. Among the surprises to me was the large number of nations, now approaching 90, who already have a space-exploration agency of their government registered with the UN. A dozen nations (and international entities like Esa) have put satellites into orbit; many more are building satellites to be launched by them. The biggest challenge for the future, however, may be the growing number of players who are not nations but rather multinational corporations (like Elon Musk’s Space X, and his interplanetary car stunt). How will their activities be regulated?
It’s to everyone’s benefit that the uses of space be coordinated. Though space seems limitless, in fact the regions where Earth satellites orbit is already getting crowded. Debris from failed satellites can damage other satellites. Even perfectly functioning satellites can interfere with each other. And while private industry is a boon when it comes to financing the uses of space, investors want some assurance that their returns — be it data or space minerals — are protected from piracy.
How can this coordination be organized? And even more critically, how can it be enforced? There are no systems so perfect that no one will need to be good (to quote T. S. Eliot), but it’s possible set things up in ways that encourage good behavior.
One way to encourage the nations of the world large and small (space industries are often incorporated in places like Luxembourg) to cooperate is to make as many people as possible stakeholders in the enterprise. You don’t have to have a rocket launcher to build a satellite; small “cubesats” are being constructed at universities from Cambridge to Kenya. And you don’t have to have your own satellite to have access to space data. Indeed, there is now so much data available that anyone with a modest computer can do valuable work to analyze and exploit that data. Many missions already rely on “crowd-sourced” science, enlisting thousands of individual enthusiasts to discover exoplanets or classify galaxies. The more people who feel like they own a bit of outer space, the theory goes, the more they will be willing to take care of it.
Spacefaring is still new. Its community (like the early Christian communities we read about in Acts this season) will experience both idealism and conflict. Perhaps, planning now might prevent 1968-style upheavals in 2068.
This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2008. We ran it here in 2016.
From a glass-enclosed visitor’s gallery at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, I watched three technicians, encased in white suits, slowly affix bits of equipment to a large aluminum frame, the platform of an SUV-sized rover to Mars.
Two sets of steering rockets were already attached; two large metal spheres painted black and gold were seated nearby. “Those are the fuel tanks, right?” I asked my friend Steve, an engineer on the project who guided my tour. “Like the ones that blew up the Mars Orbiter in the 1980s?” Every piece has a necessary function, and every piece has a history of what can happen if it goes wrong. Even with a recent string of triumphs, Mars probe failures still outnumber the successes.
Each piece is added in a carefully scripted order, with a quality-control specialist looking on: the torque wrench must not overtighten a nut, the accelerometer must not be installed upside down this time. It’s quite a show. Each bit of assembly calls on the engineers to move arms and hands and fingers with a control as fine as any dancer’s. We watch one technician carefully wrap a set of wires in thin golden tape; and just as carefully, unwrap them again.
“Oops,” I comment.
“Maybe he was supposed to do that,” suggests Steve.
In Switzerland, another such team is completing CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, to finally reveal the existence and nature of the theorized Higgs boson. What’s a Higgs boson? In the standard model for how ordinary matter is constructed from subatomic particles, the various ingredients of matter are labeled either “fermions” or “bosons” (named for Enrico Fermi and Satyendra Nath Bose). Roughly speaking, fermions help define the space that matter occupies (such that two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time) while bosons define how bits of matter interact with each other. Most of these particles are well known, and well measured: protons and electrons are fermions, photons are bosons.
The one exception are the bits responsible for matter having mass. The theorized mass-bearing boson, the Higgs particle, requires such high energies to produce that until now it has never been seen. That’s one reason the Large Hadron Collider was built. The press have labeled it the “Genesis machine” to search for the “God particle.”
That nickname for the Higgs boson comes from the tongue-in-cheek title of a book by Leon Lederman, retired director of Fermilab; irony-impaired journalists have taken him seriously. Apparently they feel the need for such overwrought metaphors to turn high energy physics in a compelling drama for the general public. This description only embarrasses most physicists, including University of Edinburgh professor Peter Higgs himself.
The deeper point is that, elegant as our standard model is, it needs to be tested. Experiment is the quality control of theory. It’ll be exciting if the Higgs boson is actually detected, because measuring its properties will help flesh out the standard model. It will be even more interesting if it is not detected. It would mean that our theories are in need of serious repair. That would be a truly dramatic result.
Like a West End play, every big production needs its critics: its quality control specialists. It’s part of the overhead for doing big science. You can’t find the Higgs boson on your own.
But fixing a performance from within, while it is running, is tricky. My engineer friend Steve’s role at JPL is to find real-time solutions when a spacecraft in flight gets into trouble. In 2001 he reprogrammed a science camera to replace a blinded navigation camera, so that the Deep Space One probe could find Comet Borrelly.
Where did he learn to make repairs on the fly? His degree is in theatre.
You may have noticed a change here... what we used to call The Catholic Astronomer is now Sacred Space Astronomy. And along with a change in layout and title, we're expanding the way you can support our work.
Why the name change? OK, so I admit, I am the guy who came up with the original name. I meant it as a pun, in the sense that "catholic" means "universal" and of course astronomers look at the universe, while our interests on this site cover pretty much the gamut from naked-eye stargazing to theoretical cosmology. All, of course, under the aegis of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.
Well, like most puns, nearly everyone missed it entirely. And since a number of our contributors are not actual Catholics (again, there is a gamut, from practicing Jews to Catholic priests to non-churchgoers) the face value of the title wasn't always appropriate.
Meanwhile, for those of you who contribute financially to keep the site (and the Foundation) running, one of the perqs of membership is that we enroll you in a program called Sacred Space, a ministry of the Jesuits in Ireland. So we borrowed that name for our on-line astronomy newsletter.
What's new about how you can support us? When you decide to support Sacred Space Astronomy, you are given the choice of three levels: Pleiades at $10 a month (or more), Hercules at $50 a month (or more), or Andromeda at $100 a month (or more):
Pleiades Membership: $10 per month, or $100 per year.
Pleiades Members receive the annual Sacred Space prayer book and full access to the Sacred Space Astronomy website.
Hercules Membership: $50 per month, or $500 per year.
At the Hercules level, in addition to the above, members also receive their choice of any book from our current book store.
Andromeda Membership: $100 per month, or $1000 per year.
In addition to all of the above, Andromeda members may have an astronomer from the Vatican Observatory to connect for one hour via Skype to the school classroom or club of your choice.
All Sacred Space members will receive a copy of Sacred Space: The Prayer Book, a year-long prayer book for thoughtful Christians with busy lives. With daily scripture readings and meditations in the Ignatian tradition, this well-respected book is a popular, portable, and accessible, prayer book published by the Irish Jesuits.Click here to enroll in Sacred Space Giving
Please allow up to 48 hours for your access to the Sacred Space Astronomy site to be validated. A password and user ID will be emailed to you once your subscription is validated.
The Vatican Observatory Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non profit corporation. Charitable donations are eligible for a tax deduction.
But several folks have asked if they could just switch this to an annual gift. We're happy to do that; the fewer times we have to charge your credit card, the less we have to pay in credit card fees (and deal with cards going out of date).
So we now offer these same levels at a rate of $100 per year for Pleiades, $500 per year for Hercules, or $1000 per year for Andromeda.
(One of these days, one of the mathematicians in our group will point out that it's a bargain to sign up for the annual giving. So quick sign up now, before they catch on!)
Big news: A Challenge! One of our large donors has issued a challenge: they will match whatever new gifts we bring in, up to a total of $50,000. So when you sign up for Sacred Space Astronomy, your donation will be doubled!
This column first appeared in The Tablet in April, 2006, and first published here in 2015.
It was April Fool’s Day at the Vatican’s telescope in southeastern Arizona, and we’d had three nights of cloudy weather. This night looked promising, however. Bill Romanishin, our colleague at the University of Oklahoma, had given us a list of Kuiper Belt Objects to observe, orbiting out beyond Neptune. Included were some Centaurs, objects that some day might become comets plunging close to the Sun.
At the telescope, I was with Steve Tegler from Northern Arizona University. Along with each object, we also observed bits of blank sky, so we could find and remove all the dust spots on the images; and fields of stars whose colours and brightnesses were already well known, so that we could calibrate our objects against these known standards. Around midnight, about halfway into a field of standard stars, Steve looked over his list again and remembered, “Oh, Bill wanted us to try 60558. It’s a Centaur that’s supposed to have a coma.”
A coma, a cloud of gas? Odd that this object, thirteen times the Earth’s distance from the Sun, would be warm enough to start vaporizing its ices into a nascent comet tail. So when we finished the standards, we pointed to 60558 and took a “test” image, a 30 second exposure to make sure we were pointed at the stars near the object. We didn’t expect to see the Centaur itself with such a short exposure; at 20th magnitude, it would be a million times fainter than the faintest star visible to the naked eye. But when the image was finally downloaded from the camera chip and displayed on our computer screen, a coma was visible even in the test image!
We took a three minute exposure; any longer, and the motion of the Centaur would have blurred its image. It showed an irregular cloud of light actually detached, off to the west of the little dot of light that marked the Centaur itself. Very strange. We ran through the colored filters, and then went on to other objects. But the longer we thought about it, the stranger it seemed. Was it real, or just an internal reflection of some bright star onto our camera chip? Would it be there the next night, after the Centaur had moved to a new field of stars?
The next night, our last at the telescope, started out cloudy again. Looking at the satellite weather maps, it looked like we’d have a hole in the clouds just as our object was rising. Fingers crossed... waiting impatiently for the object to rise... the clouds were especially thick in the southeast... the hole was beginning to close in the west... finally... success! The thin clouds cut a magnitude’s worth of light out, but the coma was bright enough that we could see it anyway. There it was again. It was real.
We sent Bill the images to analyze, and he found in our data an even larger, but fainter, cloud of light on the other side of the nucleus. Our first bright cloud, we estimated, must be half the size of Jupiter; the bigger cloud is a good fraction of the Sun’s diameter.
What causes these comae? We don’t know. We’ve never seen anything like them before. A splitting Centaur? The result of a collision, or a pocket of exotic frozen gases exposed to the sun? Is this a major breakthrough or a mere curiosity? We don’t know; only time and further observations will tell.
Usually discoveries are revealed to us gradually, understood only after a lot of “data reduction” has removed the false images of dust on our lenses and compared our faint signals to known standards of truth. But on wonderful rare occasions like this one the discovery blares at us, as obvious as the empty tomb.
In 2006, the object known as asteroid 60558 Echeclus was also given a cometary designation as 174P/Echeclus.
As of 2015, we still didn't know for sure the origin of this coma. It was tracked for several months and seen to be on an orbit that is slightly different from that of 60558; our best guess is that the source of the coma broke off the main body about a thousand years ago and the two objects have been chasing each other around the solar system since then.
By 2019, Echeclus had its own Wikipedia page, where one can read that “In 2016, carbon monoxide was detected in Echeclus in very small amounts, and the derived CO production rate was calculated to be sufficient to account for the observed coma. The calculated CO production rate from Echeclus is substantially lower than what is typically observed for 29P/Schwassmann–Wachmann, another distantly active comet often classified as a centaur.”
Travel news! I am in Tucson today; Here is where I have been, and where I will be going...
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More travels: I finished out my month in Italy with a trip to Padua, where I got to visit the historic astronomy tower of the University of Padua and the telescopes at the Asiago Observatory. But then, following a wonderful night train from Padua to Paris and the a high speed train to Brussels, I got to attend the historic unveiling of the first image of a Black Hole and celebration of the 100th anniversary of the IAU. And therein, hangs a tale...
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