What is an observatory? What’s happening with our telescope?

The word “observatory” suggests a place where observations are carried out. The Vatican Observatory, like many other institutions, has this word in its name for historical reasons. The Observatory (the institution) operates an observatory (a facility). In addition, our staff astronomers have access to other observational infrastructure. The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mt Graham in Southern Arizona has been our flagship facility since 1993. In order to return it to the forefront of astronomical technology, we have undertaken to robotize it in close collaboration with the University of Arizona, and create a new type of telescope network, the Arizona Robotic Telescope Network (ARTN), with the 61” Kuiper telescope on Mt Bigelow and the 90” Bok telescope on Kitt Peak. University of Arizona’s Mountain Operations team operates 18 telescopes, including VATT, and it is also building the ARTN. Looking back, 2016 was a challenging year. First, in June, VATT’s Chief Engineer announced his departure, effective on September 30. He became the Chief Engineer of the 6.5-m Monolithic Mirror Telescope on Mt. Hopkins. And on October 20, Bob Peterson, the head of Mountain Operations, died at his desk in his office at Steward Observatory. The situation, although thrust upon us unexpectedly and in tragic circumstances, became an opportunity to rethink the team structure, our needs and the available assets. Buell Jannuzi, Director of Steward Observatory, Jeff Kingsley, Associate Director, and I undertook this work, redrafting job descriptions to distinguish between operation and upgrades. Several minor and one major corrective maintenance operations were performed this year. The latter concerned the secondary mirror’s support and positioning system. Its failure illustrated the need for VATT’s overhaul. We had planned replacing the secondary-mirror system but the incident came too early, before we were ready for the planned replacement, forcing us to use our team’s limited resources towards repairing the old system. A very promising development concerns the commissioning of the Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric and Spectrographic Instrument (PEPSI). In the Fall 2014 Newsletter we explained that the search for planets orbiting other stars than our Sun (exoplanets) requires sensitive and stable spectrographs, capable of measuring the Doppler shift corresponding to the back-and-forth “star wobble” in reaction to the exoplanet’s motion. PEPSI is fed light from VATT through a 500-m optical fiber. Our collaborators from the Astrophysics Institute in Potsdam, Germany, who built PEPSI, have reached an exciting milestone in 2016, demonstrating that the spectrograph is capable of radial velocity measurements down to 1 m/s. This level of instrument stability is only available at a handful of facilities round the world, and may allow to measure such systems as the Proxima Centauri. We have started discussing a collaboration with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission. Telescopes are a part of the research projects past, present and future. Today most telescopes are built for specific research projects. Other telescopes are legacy of past projects, and they can be adapted for new projects. An Observatory as a research institute is not defined by the observing facilities available to its astronomers. The key are people and their collaboration with colleagues near and far.

Paul Gabor, S.J., Ph.D. Vice Director, Vatican Observatory

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