Vatican astronomer: Outer space deserves care
By Linda Bordoni & Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
News headlines in recent times have reported an upswing in the commercial race to get tourists into space, creating excitement among astronomy and space enthusiasts.
In July, two space companies made suborbital blastoffs and flights demonstrating the possibility, to those who can afford it, of venturing into outer space. Regular commercial flights are scheduled to begin from 2022 with a growing waiting list of about 600 tickets so far sold.
Amid the widening conversation regard space tourism and exploration, Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni spoke to Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, expert astronomer and Director of the Vatican Observatory about the implications of travel to new frontiers and whether this will lead to the need for new rules regarding the care for space, just as Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ Encyclical teaches us to care for our common home: the earth.
Outer space, a field of new discoveries
Br. Consolmagno, an expert in the particular field of planetary astronomy, shared from his wealth of experience and his love for astronomy which began from his younger days.
He explained that thanks to the advancements in science, humans are able to actually go into space and return with samples, some of which will be able to be examined at the Vatican Observatory’s laboratory in Castel Gandolfo, Rome.
He noted that his growing collection of more than a thousand meteorites are exciting to examine, and in collaboration with other scientists in the US, they measure how these rocks physically change at very low temperatures, similar to what is obtainable in space, to see how they have grown, changed and evolved over time.
“It reminds us that the blue sky overhead is not some impenetrable barrier that hides us from the rest of the world,” he said.
Care for outer space
The Jesuit brother went on to speak about the growing field of space travel, noting that many aspects of it are not yet regulated. He said that there is a need for regulations that “everyone can buy in on and agree to” so that “satellites do not run into each other and cause havoc for everyone.”
In light of the Laudato si’ Encyclical and Pope Francis’ calls for care of our common home, Br. Consolmagno recalls that the Greek word often used to refer to the world is “cosmos.” He explains that everything that is in it – whether it is the moon, a near-earth asteroid, or a shuttle above the orbit of the atmosphere, or the place where we walk around every day – is God’s creation that has been entrusted to us to care for.
He added that the fact that there is something rather than nothing in the universe points us to the existence of a mystery that can only be explained by a supernatural God – the logos – who created it in a logical, beautiful way.
Funding for space travel
Responding to a question about the huge resources pumped into space travel and if they could not be used to feed the poor or put to better use, Br. Consolmagno acknowledges that while there are other initiatives that could benefit from the massive funding, “we are more than just animals that need to eat and we also need to feed our souls.”
“We do not live by bread alone” he said. Therefore, it would not be right to deny a human being “the chance to explore and to satisfy that curiosity about who am I and where did I come from, and how am I in a relationship with this creation?”
Explaining further, he recalled the story of creation in the Bible, noting that the first six days were all about making sure that there was a planet that we could live on. However, “the ultimate goal of creation is the sabbath, the day that we spend contemplating God and God’s creation.”
“We are called to do this, we are called to feed the poor, that the poor may have the chance to also be able to contemplate creation whether it’s through science or through Art,” he said.
Sharing some parting words of wisdom, Br. Consolmagno invited everyone to go outside at night and spend a few moments contemplating the stars and the moon and to remember that “the world is bigger than whatever our day-to-day worries might be.”