TUCSON, Ariz. — It’s early on a frosty pre-dawn morning in the Sonoran Desert and a small band of hardy souls left their warm beds hoping for a look at Comet Catalina.
Almost directly overhead and moving toward the north in the constellation Bootes, the magnitude 4.8 comet is a fuzzy white oval in binoculars and telescopes, not quite visible with the unaided eye.
The group — all participants in this week’s Faith and Astronomy Workshop sponsored by the Vatican Observatory at the Redemptorist Renewal Center northwest of Tucson — hangs around long enough to marvel at how far this vagabond piece of rock and ice from the Oort Cloud on the edge of the solar system has traveled.
It was just one of several objects that are easily visible in clear skies this month.
Lining up from the southeastern sky where the sun would rise in another couple of hours were eye-striking Venus and not-quite-as-bright Saturn, Mars further west along the ecliptic and bright Jupiter still further west. And hanging just above the southern horizon is the largest and brightest globular cluster of the Milky Way galaxy, Omega Centauri. Its size and brightness in modest-size binoculars is truly impressive.
And all of these objects are visible against a backdrop of thousands of stars.
In their own ways, workshop participants who managed to get up extra early Jan. 12 give thanks for the beauty of the universe.
The weeklong workshop is treating 24 priests, educators and pastoral ministers to a closer look at the wonders of the sky as part of an effort to help them connect faith with the sciences and to help parishioners understand that faith in God does not conflict with scientific research and understanding.
In addition to daily lectures, discussion and field trips, the workshop includes evening and early morning — for the most intrepid — astronomical observing sessions. In the course of the first two nights this week, we’ve seen several bright objects from Charles Messier’s catalog, including M31, the Andromeda galaxy, and its companions galaxies, M32 and M110; the Great Orion Nebula, M42, where stars are being born; the remnants of a supernova explosion in 1054, M1; and bright open star clusters, M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga. In addition, depending on the instrument being used, participants, including myself, have observed other star clusters, double stars and gaseous nebulae. Even a few satellites were viewed just after sunset as they made their way across the sky.
Members of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association were on hand last night with telescopes and sharp eyes to help participants with their observing. The clear desert skies made for exquisite conditions, providing greater details than we saw Monday evening for the objects we observed.
An observing session caps of each day of the workshop. We’ll be at it again tonight.
And if the skies are clear in your area, go out and have a look at the stars. You’ll learn a thing or two and you just might find a new way to appreciate the glory of God.