Vatican astronomer: Webb telescope space images are ‘food for the human spirit’

webb1 NASA’s Webb captures a dying star’s Final ‘Performance’ in fine detail: A planetary nebula, shaped like an irregular oval, with lacy, reddish orange plumes of gas and dust. | NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
webb4 NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
webb7 NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The first images from the James Webb space telescope reveal God’s creation and feed our souls, a Jesuit brother and astronomer said Thursday.

“The images are gorgeous, as anyone can see for themselves. It’s a tantalizing glimpse of what we’ll be able to learn about the universe with this telescope in the future,” Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory since 2015, said in a July 14 statement.

Consolmagno said the images are “a necessary food for the human spirit — we do not live by bread alone — especially in these times.”

“The science behind this telescope,” he said, “is our attempt to use our God-given intelligence to understand the logic of the universe.”

“The universe wouldn’t work if it weren’t logical," he continued. “But as these images show, the universe is not only logical, it is also beautiful. This is God’s creation being revealed to us, and in it we can see both His astonishing power and His love of beauty.”

With roots dating to 1582, the Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest active astronomical observatories in the world. Its headquarters are in Castel Gandolfo, a town just outside Rome and the location of the summer residence of the popes.

The Vatican Observatory also operates the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, located in rural Arizona about 200 miles southeast of Phoenix. 

Consolmagno said that he is personally delighted by the success of the Webb telescope because he is friends with many of the scientists who built the instruments and planned the observations.

“I know how long and how hard they and their colleagues have worked to make this incredible machine work. It is a tribute to the power of the human spirit, what we can do when we work together,” he said.

The Jesuit brother added that he is amazed and grateful to God that he has given humans, his creation, “the ability to see and understand what He has done.”

He quoted Psalm 8, which says, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which  you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have  made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.”

Consolmagno also pointed to the historic contribution of a fellow Jesuit astronomer, Father Angelo Secchi, in light of “Webb’s first spectrum of water vapor in the atmosphere of an exo-planet.”

About 150 years ago, Secchi “put a prism in front of his telescope lens on the roof of the St. Ignatius Church in Rome, and made the first spectral measurements of the atmospheres of the planets in our own solar system,” Consolmagno said.

“I can only imagine how delighted he would be to see the science he pioneered applied to planets unknown to him orbiting distant stars.”

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