MIDDLETOWN – Students at Mercy High School are collaborating with Vatican astronomers on a project to publish images of nebulae on the Vatican Observatory website.
The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for members of the Mercy Astronomy Club arose last summer when Gianna Iannucci, science teacher, and Melissa Bullock, dean of curriculum and technology at Mercy, attended a science conference at the University of Notre Dame, where they met Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory.
“I reached out to him at the conference, and sent a message after I returned asking if he would be willing to collaborate with me on lessons in astronomy,” said Ms. Iannucci.
In October, Brother Guy held a video conference from Rome with the students during which he spoke about the work of Vatican astronomers, his personal journey as an astronomer and Jesuit brother, and the relationship between faith and science.
That exchange led to a trip in February for 12 students to the University of Arizona in Tucson and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mount Graham in southeast Arizona, the Vatican’s only observatory located outside of the one housed at the papal palace of Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills 15 miles from Rome.
Their itinerary included stargazing, touring the university’s planetarium and its Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, visiting the VATT viewing room and rubbing elbows with Vatican astronomers.
“Meeting inspiring people, combined with breathtaking experiences, allowed us to gain a new perspective on our journey of interactive learning that we will cherish forever,” said senior Ashley Getsie of Kensington.
After returning home, students began working on an astrophotography project. The astronomy club sent the coordinates for two nebulae to Vatican astronomers, who in turn pointed the telescope at the objects and took three images with red, green and blue filters. Using those filters, students made a composite of the images in full color for publishing in the Vatican Observatory gallery.
“I have 40 students in the astronomy club and they think it’s all wonderful,” said Ms. Iannucci. “They love it. Plus, the faith component provided by the Jesuits and the visit to observatory has given the entire experience even more depth and meaning for them.”
The astronomers talked to the students about topics ranging from evolution and the Big Bang theory to the Galileo controversy.
“We tackled some of the key issues and gave [the students] facts, not superstition,” she said. “The Catholic Church’s involvement in scientific research is huge, and most people don’t even realize it.”
The Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world, with its foreshadowing traced to Pope Gregory XIII and the reform of the calendar in 1582. For more than four decades, astronomical research, which included a program to map the whole sky, was carried out in the shadow of St. Peter’s. Among the achievements is the classification of stars according to their spectra.
When light from an expanding Rome began to inhibit the study of the stars, Pope Pius XI moved the observatory to Castel Gandolfo where the Vatican installed two new telescopes and an astrophysical laboratory for spectro-chemical analysis.
In 1891, to counteract longstanding accusations of a hostility of the church toward science, Pope Leo XIII formally re-founded the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory) and located it on a hillside behind the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. As it celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, the Vatican Observatory serves to promote educational and scientific research.
As urban growth and the dimming of the night skies continued, the Vatican Observatory founded a second research center in 1981 in the prime stargazing location of Tucson. In 1993 the observatory, in collaboration with the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, completed construction of the VATT on Mount Graham, where it has pioneered the new technology of creating large, lightweight, stable mirrors in a rotating furnace.
“We were privileged to meet with Vatican astronomers and also experience some of the culture of the area,” said Ms. Iannucci about the trip to Arizona.
“As a Catholic educator and scientist, to hear the expression of reverence from my students (while stargazing) brought home the purpose of my work … one of the finer things in life,” said Mrs. Iannucci. “Faith and science are not incompatible.”