This column first ran in The Tablet in August 2010; we first ran it here in 2016. Saturday, seventeen hours from California, my friend Dan and I land in Australia. We’re looking forward to a week of observing southern stars, researching our latest book, a guide for amateur astronomers. Brother Ian meets us at the airport and leads us to the Jesuit winery and retreat house at Sevenhill, two hours north of Adelaide. Even jet-lag and a partly cloudy sky can’t stop us from pulling out our telescopes that night and peeking at Rigel Kentaurus, our Sun’s nearest neighbor, and Acrux, the brightest star of the Southern Cross. Both are double stars, first split by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. After half an hour, the sky clouds over completely. But not to worry, we have the whole week before us. (A heat wave across North America threatens the lives of the poor and elderly.) Sunday, Ian shows us around the vineyards and …Continue reading →
This column was first published in The Tablet in October, 2005; we first ran it here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015 Standing in the lee of The Leviathan, a handful of amateur astronomers and their cool white telescopes huddled against the night Irish wind, praying for the skies to clear. We were attending the 20th Whirlpool Amateur Astronomy conference, held every autumn at the castle of Lord Rosse in Birr. Here in the 1840’s the Third Earl had built the world’s largest telescope: rightly called a leviathan, it boasted a mirror five feet in diameter set in a tube fifty feet long. With this giant he’d discovered the spiral arm structure in that galaxy off the handle of the Plough called The Whirlpool. (Actually it’s six feet in diameter, as I will discuss in a later post!) The third Earl was a classic example of an amateur astronomer: one who did his work only for the love of the …Continue reading →
This past March, on the way to join the Vatican Observatory’s tour of astronomical sites in Italy, my wife and I visited Birr (Parsonstown) in Ireland. Birr is home to Birr Castle and its great telescope, the “Leviathan of Parsonstown”—the giant mirror-based “reflector” built by William Parsons, the Earl of Rosse. The Leviathan was the largest telescope in the world for over seventy years, from its completion in 1845 until 1917. It was arguably the first modern telescope—the first successful effort to produce a big “Light Bucket” reflecting telescope* that could tease out details about what are today often called “deep sky objects”—the “faint fuzzies” that are galaxies and nebulae and the like. The Leviathan was bigger than any lens-based “refractor” telescope existing at that time, and bigger than any refractor that ever would be built. It had (and still has) a mirror of diameter 72 inches, or 6 feet, or 1.8 meters (the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mt. …Continue reading →
This column first ran in The Tablet in June, 2009 Anyone who has moved to a new home knows the odd, unsettling experience of seeing old furniture in a new, strange settings. Our knick-knacks define home to us; they are, echoing the practice of ancient Rome, our “household gods.” In moving a Jesuit community, the phrase takes on a powerful literal meaning when the tabernacle is moved into a new chapel. June, 2009 was moving month for the Specola. We’d been talking among ourselves about shifting out of the Papal Palace and into the Papal Gardens for some time; still, it was hard to move our inertial mass. But the confluence of a new Pope who continued his active work and string of state visitors through the summer months at Castel Gandolfo, the security issues that everyone has become aware in the past decade, and our own growing needs finally brought the issue to a head. It took three years to get here. …Continue reading →
A group of Vatican Observatory Foundation friends accompanied by astronomer Br. Guy Consolmagno and Dr. Faith Vilas were hosted by the European Southern Observatory on a magnificent tour of observatories and telescopes in Chile. The 12-day tour visited La Silla, Las Campanas, Paranal, and ALMA with evening star gazing to view the incredibly clear skies and some of the brightest stars on earth. Never has the Milky Way been so amazing!
Our last stop on the Chile trip was San Pedro de Atacama, a hiker’s paradise that now serves as the headquarters for the APEX microwave telescope (a friend of mine was using it while we were there) and the ALMA microwave radio telescope array, located at 16,400 feet (5,000 meters). It’s so high up that you have to be examined by a doctor before they let you visit. Everyone in our group passed the test… except me. (I was on antibiotics, fighting a sinus infection I’d picked up in Denver.) As I result, I don’t have first-hand descriptions… but these are some of the photos that Katie took and shared with us: But along with the telescopes, we also got to visit a couple of the remarkable sites near San Pedro… the El Tatio hot springs and geysers (best seen at sunrise, which meant an early start for us) and the “Valley of the Moon”, a remarkable collection of mountains …Continue reading →
We visited the Magellan Observatory at Las Campanas, which is visible from La Silla, en route our trips to La Silla (Diary 1) and Paranal (Diary 2). This observatory is sponsored by a number of US institutions including the Carnegie Institute and Harvard, MIT, U of Michigan, and the U of Arizona. The two Magellan telescopes were built in 2000 and 2002, using 6.5 meter mirrors fabricated at the U of Arizona mirror lab (which our FAW group toured in January). Nearby is the mountaintop where the Giant Magellan Telescope will be built; it will have seven 8.4 meter mirrors in one structure! These mirrors are all made with the spin-cast technique of Roger Angel, first used to make the VATT mirror more than 20 years ago.
A few days after we visited La Silla we went to the telescopes that defined astronomy in the 2000’s: the VLT (Very Large Telescope) at Paranal. These telescopes are a couple of hours from Antofagasta, a desolate plain utterly devoid of life. The dryness of the area makes Tucson look like an oasis by comparison. Thus the shock of the astronomer’s hotel… It is built into the side of the mountain; from the road, all you can see is a small dome: But once you go through the airlock double-doors, you find yourself in a moist rainforest environment! In fact, the setting is so dramatic, it was used in the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace”… But the best part was being in the dome of one of the 8.2 meter telescopes as it was being prepared for observing that night…
For the past two weeks, I have been in Chile with a group sponsored by the Vatican Observatory Foundation to tour a number of the ESO (and other) astronomical observatories. The whole trip was made possible by the help of Dr. Fernando Comerón, the ESO representative in Chile (he has ambassador’s status!) who set up the whole tour and got us places to stay in the observatories themselves. There were three major observatory stops along the way… the first was La Silla, which is located a few hours outside of the Chilean city of La Serena, which is also near the American observatory of Cerro Tololo. Both La Silla and Cerro Tololo were developed in the 1960s, about the same time as Kitt Peak, and they have a very familiar feel to them… the telescopes are also mostly from the 1960’s to the 1990s. The site was chosen to be both clear and dark, yet still convenient accessible at that …Continue reading →