Connecting with cutting edge astronomy

Paul Canton, a doctoral student in astronomy at the University of Arizona, explains his research of binary stars in front of the four-meter optical telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Paul Canton, a doctoral student in astronomy at the University of Oklahoma, explains his research on binary stars in front of the 4-meter optical telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

TUCSON, Ariz. — That 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory is one huge piece of equipment.

Seeing one of the world’s largest optical telescopes with observatory’s director, Lori E. Allen, as their guide, participants in this week’s Faith and Astronomy Workshop put on by the Vatican Observatory got a better understanding of how astronomers are helping unlock some of the mysteries of the universe during a visit Thursday.

The telescope has been in operation since 1970 under a 180-foot-tall dome atop Kitt Peak, located 54 miles southwest of Tucson.

Allen said the telescope is available year-round except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As the 24 workshop participants marveled at the size of the monstrous telescope, astronomer Paul Canton, 29, a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma, was preparing to use it to measure binary white dwarfs in a collaborative effort with other scientists to detect gravitational waves as predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Canton’s work is among some of the cutting edge work astronomers are undertaking these days.

The telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory in southern Arizona. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski

The telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory in southern Arizona. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)


The workshop participants also visited the neighboring dome housing the 90-inch Bok Telescope operated by the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory. Three Chinese researchers were preparing for a night of observing by cooling the charge coupled device (camera) attached to the telescope with liquid nitrogen to make it more sensitive to photons from distant planetary nebulae.

Hu Zou, a staff member of the Beijing National Astronomical Observatory, said that the group had been measuring nebulae structures for 10 nights and had two more to gather data.

The telescope is the same one used by Jesuit Father Chis Corbally of the Vatican Observatory staff, who joined the workshop visitors, when he conducted star surveys over the years.

The Kitt Peak excursion was the third of the week as part of the workshop. Earlier visits included the Lunar and Planetary Lab Imagining Center and the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab, both at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Members of the Vatican Observatory's Faith and Astronomy Workshop peer down at the large furnace inside the University of Arizona's Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab in Tucson. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Members of the Vatican Observatory’s Faith and Astronomy Workshop peer down at the large furnace inside the University of Arizona’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab in Tucson. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The mirror lab, visited Wednesday, particularly impressed the participants because of the high-tech innovations being used to produce the largest telescopic mirrors in the world.

The lab’s Alan Brass said it takes nearly a year to produce an 8.4-meter diameter (nearly 28 feet) mirror in a process developed by astronomer Roger Angel. Prior to Angel’s innovation it was impossible to make a mirror so large out of a single block of glass.

Angel’s solution yields a piece of glass with a hollow, honeycomb interior. The process involves putting clear glass into a honeycomb-shaped mold in a two-and-a-half story rotating furnace. The temperature in the furnace is gradually raised to 2,100 degrees, allowing the glass to melt and fall into the mold.

The furnace spins, allowing the molten glass to flow into a parabolic shape. Computer precision grinding follows once the glass cools to produce the mirrored surface.

The lab completed its 19th mirror last year. It will be used in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope being built in the Andes in Chile. Once online, the telescope will allow astronomers to take 1,000 pairs of exposures each evening and will cover the entire night sky in three days in the search for objects that “change and move.”

The first field trip to the imaging center Tuesday showcased several projects, including the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission set for launch in September and the digital archiving of photographs from 1960s-era spacecraft missions to the moon.

The Lunar and Planetary Lab is playing a key role in the asteroid mission, which will find the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft making a seven-year round-trip journey to Asteroid 101955 Bennu. The spacecraft will take two years to get to the asteroid, two or more years to survey it and obtain a sample and two years to return with a landing in Utah.

Father Bill Stolzman of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minn., examines an iron-rich meteorite at the Lunar and Planetary Lab Imagin Center at the University of Arizona. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Father Bill Stolzman of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minn., examines an iron-rich meteorite at the Lunar and Planetary Lab Imaging Center at the University of Arizona. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Dolores Hill, a meteorite expert at the lab, explained that the mission will help determine the composition of asteroids and allow for comparison to meteorites that tumbled to Earth to piece together the origins of the solar system. Scientists currently are working to determine how much material the spacecraft will be able to pick up in what amounts to a brief touch-and-go “landing” on the 1,600-foot diameter asteroid.

The archiving work is vital to preserve the photographs taken by the Survey missions to the moon that paved the way for the Apollo landings on Earth’s satellite. John Anderson, senior media technician, has archived 94,000 images since March. He’s got hundreds of thousands to go.

Touching outer space

Lauren Bordelon, religion teacher at Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans, left, and Joseph Varco, science teacher at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, New Jersey, compare meteorites with earth rocks during the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Lauren Bordelon, religion teacher at Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans, left, and Joseph Varco, science teacher at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, New Jersey, compare meteorites with earth rocks during the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

TUCSON, Ariz. —  Yesterday I played with rocks.

Not just any rocks mind you, but rocks from space that are an estimated 4.5 billion years old.

I have played with rocks as an adult, skipping them off the surface of Lake Erie on a calm summer day. And there was the time I joined right in to sift stones and dirt when my wife, Chris, arranged for our sons’ home school group to work at an archaeological dig at the former Civil War-era prison for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio.

But holding pieces of space stuff in my hands far surpassed those experiences.

Those of us at Day 2 of the Faith and Astronomy Workshop sponsored by the Vatican Observatory yesterday had the opportunity to examine several types of meteorites assembled in kits by Larry and Nancy Lebofsky, a husband-wife team who share the joys of astronomy with groups throughout the Tucson area.

Both are friends of Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory. Like Brother Consolmagno, Larry Lebofsky is an expert on meteorites and since retiring as senior research scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, he has served as senior education specialist at the Planetary Science Institute.

Nancy Lebofsky has worked as an instructional specialist, coordinator at Steward Observatory. She leads programs on celestial storytelling. Their goal is to make astronomy fun and interesting and to get people to think about the vast universe beyond Earth.

Examining a small box of rocks with Father John Schrader, pastor of Peace of Christ Parish in Rochester, New York, I was able to handle a heavy iron-rich meteorite and smaller chondrites cut from larger specimens, including one that was discovered in northwest Africa.

One of the chondrites contained chondrules, round grains that form as molten droplets in space before being accreted to a parent asteroid. The second had been moderately heated so that it no longer showed evidence of chondrules, but iron flakes were visible.

The kit also contained a round deep black tektite, an Earth rock that was melted in a hypervelocity impact by a meteorite crashing into Earth. Some of the rock can be ejected into the air — most probably above the atmosphere — and as the molten rock falls back to Earth it cools and hardens into a round or flat shape.

Different rocks from Arizona and elsewhere were included in the kit to provide a comparison to the samples from space.

Larry Lebofsky also passed around encased samples of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that exploded over the Russian city in February 2013, damaging 7,200 buildings and injuring 1,500 people.

Yep, it was quite a day playing with rocks. At least for a while I was a kid again.

Seeing the glory of God in the night sky

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, explains the basic workings of a telescope to participants in the Faith and Astronomy Workshop Jan. 12. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, explains the basic workings of a telescope to participants in the Faith and Astronomy Workshop Jan. 12. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

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.


Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Jan. 10, 2016

"The people were filled with expectation." -- Luke 3:15

“The people were filled with expectation.” — Luke 3:15


Jan. 10, The Baptism of the Lord

      Cycle C. Readings:

      1) Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 or Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

      Psalm 29:1-4, 3, 9-10 or Psalm 104:1-4, 24-25, 27-30

      2) Acts 10:34-38 or Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7

      Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22


By Jeff Hedglen
Catholic News Service

Years ago, I quit reading the comic strip “Ziggy” because it is so pessimistic and I did not want to allow so much negativity in my life. But before I quit reading it, there was one particular bit of his signature cynical wisdom that had a ring of truth: “If you are continually disappointed, lower your expectations.” See what I mean? It’s kind of pessimistic, but there is some truth to the statement.

This was brought to my mind at a recent young adult ministry series called “Theology on Tap.” The presenter, Andrew Gill, was talking about how our faith calls us to live a healthy lifestyle and he asked a series of questions: Do you often have expectations? Do they tend to lead to disappointment? Does this sometimes lead to resentment?

He went on to say that there is a better option: hope. He said, “Hope is different than expectation. Hope leads to acceptance, and that leads to care.”

The lessons from both “Ziggy” and this “Theology On Tap” discussion came rushing back to me when reading this week’s Gospel, which starts out, “The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.”

As it turns out, their expectation of John being the anointed one was not realized. I am not sure if they were disappointed or not to find out that it was actually John’s cousin who was the Messiah.

Their expectations were born of a centuries-long hope that was valiantly held by God’s chosen people: the hope for the promised Messiah.

Hope is one of the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love. Hope is not something we can conjure up; it is a gift from God. So when we find ourselves disappointed by unmet expectations, maybe instead of turning this into resentment, we can turn instead to Jesus and ask for a dose of hope, for hope does not disappoint.


How do you react when your expectations are not met? What are some things you hope for in your life?

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Jan. 3, 2016

"See, darkness covers the earth … but upon you the Lord shines." -- Isaiah 60:2

“See, darkness covers the earth … but upon you the Lord shines.” — Isaiah 60:2


Jan. 3, the Epiphany of the Lord

      Cycle C. Readings:

      1) Isaiah 60:1-6

      Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13

      2) Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6

      Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12


By Jean Denton
Catholic News Service

The first of this week’s Scriptures for Epiphany calls the people of God to see the light of hope that the Lord shines on them amid the world’s darkness. Raise your eyes, the prophet Isaiah tells us, and see your sons and daughters coming from everywhere to live in that light.

On a tour to Eastern Europe last fall, I visited several sites that recalled some of humanity’s darkest moments in recent history, and I was struck by the enormous number of people drawn to those places from all over the world.

I wondered why people come by the thousands every day to look into such darkness. Why do they walk through the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz or stand next to the remains of the Berlin Wall — memorials to victims of unthinkable human atrocity and oppression?

After a sobering visit to Auschwitz, our tour took us to nearby Czestochowa, a place of much more hope and light where for 600 years faithful, trusting Catholics have trekked to pray for God’s care and protection before an ancient icon of the Black Madonna.

Observing crowds stream to both Auschwitz and Czestochowa, I realized that both are places of pilgrimage and that people are drawn not to the darkness but to search for light out of the darkness.

Visitors listened intently to the guide at Auschwitz who spoke of individuals and families degraded and exterminated in the camp, whose dignity and strength survived through the recollection of their lives.

The guide told me her own grandmother suffered great personal tragedy during World War II. “She cried and said, ‘There must be no more war,’ and that is why it is so important to me to show what happened here.”

In Berlin, after the wall came down, the city determined to leave some remnants standing as a reminder of the tragic effects of division and political oppression.

Pilgrims come to Auschwitz and Berlin to recognize the consequences of evil for humankind and to consider how to shine the light of goodness and hope in the presence of darkness. Isaiah proclaims. “Thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines.”

We are called to face the darkness and find — and bear — God’s light for the world.


Where have you witnessed God’s light in dark experiences of today’s world? How can you bring that light into situations where you recognize evil?

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Dec. 27, 2015

"Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" -- Luke 2:49

“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” — Luke 2:49


Dec. 27, The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Cycle C. Readings:

1) Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 or 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28

Psalm 128:1-5 or Psalm 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10

2) Colossians 3:12-21 or Colossians 3:12-17 or 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24

Gospel: Luke 2:41-52


By Sharon Perkins
Catholic News Service

During the past year, Pope Francis’ Wednesday audience talks have emphasized and explored the holiness of the human family, warts and all. Additionally, the recent World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome continued to stir debate both inside and outside the Catholic Church.

I suspect that family-related social issues and decisions about pastoral care of families — all kinds of families — will shape our conversations for a significant period of time. And that’s a good thing.

Prior to the World Meeting of Families, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia published a preparatory study booklet entitled “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.” Its summary statement declared: “We believe that love is our mission, and that this mission is the only way we can be fully alive and be who we were created to be. We believe that this love should be taught, shared and communicated in and through the family, the domestic church. We believe that the family shares in the mission of the whole church.”

What does a “family fully alive” look like? Today’s Scripture readings give us some clues: respect for parental authority; compassion and kindness toward the aged and feeble; children regarded as blessings and not as burdens; wives and husbands subordinate and loving toward each other; forgiveness, thankfulness, patience and peace; a devout family life of prayer and communal religious celebration; and, sometimes, the experiences of loss, anxiety and confusion as parents learn to let go of their adult children.

The feast of the Holy Family celebrates the most “fully alive” family of all. Still, just as Jesus had to remind Joseph and Mary that his life’s purpose transcended their immediate family concerns, we are reminded that our families’ lives — complex, varied and abundant as they are — do not simply exist for our own benefits and purposes.

Each Christian family has a vocation, shared in and through the whole church. So we must hold loosely “our” possessions, “our” interests, “our” comforts and “our” aspirations for our children, knowing that our families are part of a much bigger family that has at its core the mission of a love poured out for the whole world. Jesus, Mary and Joseph did this willingly; we are called to follow in their footsteps.


How would you describe your family as being “fully alive”? In what ways is the mission of the Christ and his church lived out through your own family?

Away in a manger at a church in Queens

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Christmas tree. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Christmas tree. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Just a month ago the story of a newborn being left in the Nativity scene at a Catholic church in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, made headlines on the diocese’s NET TV and across the country, if not the world.

In the news business something that happened a month ago might seem like old news, but on Christmas Eve, a day full of joyous anticipation, it is a timely story that bears retelling.

And the best way to recount that story of the babe found in the manger at Holy Child Jesus Church in the Richmond Hill area of Queens is through the eyes of Father Chris Heanue, parochial vicar at the church where the story unfolded. Ed Wilkinson, editor of The Tablet, Brooklyn’s diocesan newspaper, sent along this piece written by Father Heanue:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”

In most parishes, Mondays are pretty routine. Usually, priests and staff spend their Mondays responding to e-mails and calls from the past weekend, preparing office mailings, cleaning the church after the weekend Masses and performing other ordinary tasks. A recent Monday (Nov. 24), however, was unlike all the rest at my parish, Holy Child Jesus in Richmond Hill.

That morning, our maintenance man, Jose Moran, began putting up our indoor Nativity scene in preparation for Christmas. Although its assembly was a bit premature for my liking, it turned out to be timed perfectly in God’s providence.

Shortly after returning from lunch, Jose began sweeping and cleaning the church. While he was performing his duties, he began to hear the cries of a child. The sobs led him to our newly assembled creche. To his great surprise, there was a newborn child placed in the stable, wrapped in, for lack of better words, swaddling clothes!

He immediately ran to the office and informed the parish secretary, who called the priests. We immediately called 911. Thankfully, the baby boy was in perfect health, though the paramedics brought him to the hospital for care.

Photo of the baby shortly after he was found. (Courtesy/Ed Wilkinson, The Tablet)

Photo of the baby shortly after he was found at Holy Child Jesus Church. (Courtesy/Ed Wilkinson, The Tablet)

By Tuesday, the story was “viral.” We received phone calls from many media outlets. Television vans, cameras and reporters swarmed the parish. Headlines blared: “Newborn Baby Found in Manger,” “Manger Baby,” and “Baby Found Lying in a Manger.” Recalling the timeline of events to every reporter was taxing, though I and the other priests of the parish saw it as an opportunity for evangelization.

This evangelization centered on three themes:

Life: May God bless this mother, who in her time of distress and fear chose life. Too often in the news we hear about similar situations that do not end as well and as happily as this one. As scared as this poor mother was, she gave her child a chance at life. She left him in a place she knew to be safe, the house of God. Someone left in the hands of God and his church is never truly abandoned.

Church as Home: We are starting a Jubilee Year of Mercy. What better way to be merciful than to provide shelter to someone in need? This young mother found in our parish church a safe place for her child. At Holy Child Jesus, the church doors remain open for at least 13 hours each day. One wonders if this mother found the doors of the church locked, where would she have turned?

Priesthood: This incident led me to reflect on my own priesthood. Even though I have only been ordained a priest for five months, I have had so many amazing and exciting experiences. The priesthood is most certainly not boring. God continues to surprise us and to show us His plan each and every day.

At the center of the priest’s day is his celebration of the Mass, from which so many graces flow. The holy Eucharist gives the priest strength to mourn with those who have lost a loved one, to rejoice with a couple as they enter into holy matrimony or with a family as they witness the baptism of a little one, to counsel parishioners in the confessional and outside of it, and to serve the People of God in countless other ways.

On that unique Monday in late November, God invited me to rejoice in the gift of life, to give thanks for my vocation to preach His Gospel and to welcome all those who seek a home in the church.

(Brooklyn Auxiliary) Bishop Octavio Cisneros, the pastor here, and I had the chance to visit the baby boy in Jamaica Hospital. We prayed that he may grow up to be a strong and faithful follower of Jesus and that God may protect him on his life’s journey.

At this moment, the child has been placed in the care of a foster family. He will remain there until the mother of the child fully relinquishes her rights as mother. Recently, the mother spoke anonymously to a city newspaper and explained that she did not feel ready to be a mother because she does not have the ability to provide for her child. Although she did also state that she might keep the child.

There are numerous loving parishioners of Holy Child Jesus that wish to adopt him. So many of us feel that he was a gift to our community and that he should remain in our parish. Yet, we know that this is truly in the hands of God. As the boy’s mother placed her trust in the Lord, so must we.

Let us pray for all mothers who find themselves in times of despair and fear that they may always choose life. As we prepare a home in our hearts for the Christ child this Christmas, we pray that all may find in our churches a home, a place in which they are welcomed and supported and in which they receive the message of the Gospel.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124,461 other followers