Over the last ten years or so there have been stories circulating the internet regarding a large binocular telescope that is owned by the Vatican – the Lucifer Telescope. What does the Vatican need a telescope for and why do they own one that is called Lucifer? Is this long-standing rumor even true? We’re going to find out.
Why Does The Vatican Own A Telescope?
The Vatican owns a telescope which is located on Mount Graham, in south-eastern Arizona where sky conditions are among the best in the world. The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) is located at this facility alongside two other telescopes. The first of which is known as the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT), which is owned by the University of Arizona itself. The third and largest telescope is the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) which is a joint project by multiple American, Italian, and German universities and research institutions. The Vatican telescope is jointly operated by the Vatican Observatory and the University of Arizona. Together these telescopes form Mount Graham International Observatory (MGIO).
So you might be wondering why the Vatican not only owns a telescope, they own an observatory? The Vatican observatory is, surprisingly, one of the oldest astronomical institutions. Oddly enough, in 1580 the Gregorian Tower was built inside the Vatican itself. The Vatican claimed that the tower had the sole purpose of making sure Holy Days were celebrated on the right dates. The Christian liturgical calendar is closely linked with astronomical bases i.e. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Vernal Equinox. Eventually, with the increase in light pollution in Rome, it became more difficult to see anything. The Vatican swapping locations a few times before eventually setting up the VATT at the international facility in Arizona.
What About The Lucifer Telescope?
We know that the Vatican telescope is known as the VATT so what is the Lucifer telescope and where did it come from? L.U.C.I.F.E.R stands for Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extragalactic Research (bit of a mouthful). This tool is very powerful and allows astronomers to see incredibly distant objects in the universe. Using infrared technology this tool has lead to amazing discoveries about the formation of stars and planets and has massive potential for even more discoveries about and distant planets. But Lucifer isn’t a telescope!
The Lucifer telescope gets its name from the LUCI instruments, which work alongside the Large Binocular Telescope. The LBT is made up of two 8.4m telescopes that operate side by side. These telescopes feed photons into eight different instruments, which can then be interpreted by astronomers. Two of these instruments are called LUCI1 and LUCI2, but they were originally named (deep breath) Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extragalactic Research or L.U.C.I.F.E.R. Of course, the Vatican telescope (VATT) sharing a facility with an instrument known as L.U.C.I.F.E.R. is going to cause some upset.
It’s unsurprising that this morphed into a story about the Vatican owning a telescope called LUCIFER. This story caused so much offense that the instruments were renamed LUCI1 and LUCI2 back in 2012, six years before the instruments were even completed! It is also worth noting that the LUCI1 and LUCI2 instruments are made to work with the LBT only, not the Vatican Telescope. The Large Binocular Telescope isn’t even owned by the Vatican, it’s owned by a group of international universities and research institutions.
Can These Telescopes Be Used To Find Alien Life?
According to the field of exobiology, the study of extraterrestrial life, the presence of chlorophyll is the best indication of life. At the red end of the visible spectrum, chlorophyll shows up as almost black and at longer wavelengths, in the infrared, it becomes transparent. This sudden dip in the spectrum is known as the “red edge” and it is the sure-fire indication of life. If we had an optical and infrared telescope powerful enough, we could use it to detect the presence of life on other planets… unfortunately, LUCI1 and LUCI2 would probably pick it up but the LBT telescope just isn’t sensitive enough!
This leaves the Vatican Telescope with absolutely no hope of picking up alien life as it is a much smaller telescope. As intriguing as it would be for the Vatican to own a telescope called Lucifer, unfortunately, there never was a telescope called Lucifer, and the LUCI instruments are not telescopes, nor do they belong to the Vatican.
The Vatican owning a telescope is still a bit weird considering that they didn’t officially recognize that Galileo was right about the earth orbiting the sun until 1992 – 350 years after they placed him under house arrest. It is estimated that there are ten or twelve astronomers that work at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope facility. It’s rather small operation as you have to be a catholic priest to work there (one cannot imagine a huge crossover between religion and science). These Catholic astronomers still observe important dates for the accuracy of the liturgical year, among other work. Considering the wealth of the Catholic church, grant funding is not an issue for these astronomers. The astronomers at the VATT facility have published work on the study of asteroids and main-sequence stars, but nothing on alien lifeforms just yet. Considering the funding and power that the catholic church holds, it is almost impossible to know what they’re truly up to though so I guess we’ll never really know…