The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mount Graham in southern Arizona celebrated its 30th anniversary this month, and the observatory has several days worth of celebrations planned for this weekend. 

The VATT is a relatively recent extension of the Vatican Observatory, which has roots dating to 1582, making it one of the oldest active astronomical observatories in the world. The observatory was re-founded in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, who intended to reinforce the Catholic Church’s support of science. 

Originally located near St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Vatican Observatory moved to Castel Gandolfo under Pope Pius XI due to light pollution from the city. In 1981, again due to growing light pollution, the observatory launched another research center under the famously dark Arizona skies. 

The VATT, which is paid for by private donations, is today located on a mountaintop in rural Arizona about 200 miles southeast of Phoenix. The complex consists of the Alice P. Lennon Telescope and the Thomas J. Bannan Astrophysics Facility. The telescope saw “first light” on Sept. 18, 1993, the observatory said.

The observatory’s headquarters remain at Castel Gandolfo, a town just outside Rome and the location of the summer residence of the popes. 

Chris Graney, an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, previously told CNA that Catholics can take pride in the fact that their Church embraces science, and promotes and encourages the kind of research that gets published “in the best scientific journals.” 

He also noted that the priests working at the VATT are following in the footsteps of other Catholic scientists who have contributed to our knowledge about the universe, including Father Georges Lemaître, the originator of the Big Bang theory. 

The observatory’s facilities on Mount Graham have been involved in numerous scientific discoveries over its three decades of operation. Astronomers at the VATT continue to discover new heavenly bodies, many of which end up bearing the names of Catholics.

The featured guest and speaker for the VATT’s 2023 weekend of celebration is Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., who flew on four Space Shuttle missions, served as NASA administrator from 2009 to 2017, and has described himself as a “practicing Christian.” The event will be hosted by Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, Vatican Observatory director and Vatican Observatory Foundation president.

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Celebration events include a reservation-only gala dinner at the Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, Tucson, at which Bolden will speak, on Sept. 29. On Sept. 30, Vatican Observatory astronomers Father Christopher Corbally, SJ, and Father Pavel Gabor, SJ, will give a tour of the observatory. 

Set for Oct. 1 is a memorial Mass for Father George V. Coyne, SJ, past director of the Vatican Observatory, at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Tucson. And finally, on Oct. 2, the VATT will be featured at the Public Evening Lecture Series of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, with panelists discussing the telescope’s history and future.

The observatory recently announced that thanks to a grant from the Thomas Lord Charitable Trust, the VATT will be fully robotized in 2024, enabling its remote operation from anywhere in the world.