What a fun and interesting story this is! I’ve been interested in the Vatican Observatory for years, as you will see, especially when you get to the part entitled “A Serendipitous Encounter.”

It’s been a quiet week for papal and curial news – no general audience today – because the Holy Father and ranking members of the Roman Curia are on retreat until late Friday morning but that doesn’t mean there’s not a great news story out there!


The Vatican Observatory announced that three astronomers at the Vatican’s astronomical observatory and a Pope with connections to the observatory, now have asteroids named after them.

On February 7, 2023 the Working Group for Small Bodies Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) published their latest batch of named asteroids that includes:

562971 Johannhagen — honoring Fr. Johann Hagen (1847-1930) of the Society of Jesus (S.J.) and Director of the Vatican Observatory from 1906-1930.

551878 Stoeger — honoring Fr. Bill Stoeger, S.J. (1943- 2014), a cosmologist and theologian at the Vatican Observatory.

565184 Janusz — honoring Fr. Robert Janusz, S.J. (b. 1964), currently on the staff of the observatory.

560974 Ugoboncompagni — honoring Ugo Boncompagni (1502-1585), Pope Gregory XIII, who directed the reform of the calendar and began the tradition of papal astronomers and observatories. He commissioned the astronomer Fr. Christopher Clavius, S.J. (who also has an asteroid named for him — 20237 Clavius) to work on the calendar project, who then wrote the book on the operation of what is now called the “Gregorian” calendar, used worldwide today.

The observatory statement notes that, “the four asteroids, or “minor planets”, all have connections to the Society of Jesus — the “Jesuits”. Over thirty asteroids now bear the names of Jesuits. Some are Jesuits from the centuries ago, such as Clavius, or Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671), who developed the system of lunar nomenclature that is still used today. For example, when the Apollo 11 mission landed in the lunar “Sea of Tranquility,” that name “Tranquility” came from Riccioli. Some, such as Janusz, are Jesuits still working today.

Photos from a media visit several years ago to Castelgandolfo and the two sites of the Vatican Observatory – the Apostolic Palace and a second observatory site on the papal premises.

I have put these into two slide shows where you will see the Apostolic Palace, the views on Lake Albano, the observatory offices, a bit of the town of Castelgandolfo, Fr. Paul Mueller, SJ, observatory vice director who was our guide and teacher, telling us about the Tucson observatory, Popes who have visited the observatory, and other images.

The entire observatory in Castelgandolfo used to be housed on the top floors of the papal palace where the telescopes are. The new headquarters are on the papal premises in a building that use to house an order of nuns.

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The new asteroids join those already named for Vatican Observatory astronomers, including 302849 Richardboyle, 119248 Corbally, 14429 Coyne, 4597 Consolmagno, 23443 Kikwaya, and 11266 Macke. Br. Guy Consolmagno is the current director of the Vatican observatory or specola and has been my guest several times on “Vatican Insider”

I also interviewed another Jesuit astronomer in a truly serendipitous moment.

In August 2017 I was in Honolulu on vacation. Because of an exceptional meeting on my flight from Los Angeles where I was seated next to David Ciardi, an astronomer from Caltech University, I learned that the International Astronomical Union was holding its 29th General assembly in Honolulu, a two-week long meeting that brings together over 2500 astronomers from an estimated 75 countries around the world including Vatican City state.  The Vatican has been famous for centuries for its telescopes and is well-known for VATT, the Vatican Advanced Telescope Technology.

The Vatican sent three of the Vatican Observatory Jesuits to Honolulu for this conference and I was privileged to interview Fr. Chris Corbally, for whom an asteroid has been named, as you just read! A wonderful meeting at Honolulu’s Convention Center which I appreciate even more because of my visits to the specola and interviews with observatory staffers, as well as being a “part time student” in a summer course!

Here is a link to the specola homepage: Vatican Observatory – Home

And if you are an aspiring astronomer and a college student or doing post-graduate work in astronomy, you might be interested in coming to Rome for VOSS – Vatican Observatory Summer School. I attended these on several occasions as a journalist. It was just for the day but was a fascinating, enlightening experience. Vatican Observatory – VOSS 2023