Searching the Heavens
France Griggs Sloat
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In the Pinaleno Mountains near Safford, Ariz., three hours northeast of Tucson, is a piece of earth and sky that has become a window to the world—and the heavens above. Born of volcanic activity, Mt. Graham rises nearly 11,000 feet from Arizona’s desert floor and still bears trees that date back to the 1200s, long before modern humans began probing the mysteries of the universe.
Now the mountain bears the mark of man. On its peak, where the sky is black and the air is crisp and clear, three telescopes open their eyes toward space. The data they gather feed the research projects of astronomers and scientists worldwide, people who study unfathomable concepts such as black holes, cosmic background radiation and the Big Bang theory of creation.
At the heart of this Mecca for astronomical research in the American Southwest is the Catholic Church—the Jesuit order, in particular. The Vatican itself, under the direction of Pope John Paul II, spearheaded the development of the Mt. Graham International Observatory and funded the construction of its first telescope, painstakingly erected between 1985 and 1993.
The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope is managed by the Vatican Observatory Research Group, established in 1981 by the Vatican Observatory in partnership with the University of Arizona, which shared in the nearly $6 million cost of construction. The Vatican’s 75-percent share was raised entirely from donations. Fundraising continues, as the $3 million endowment is not nearly enough to support the telescope’s $800,000 annual cost to operate.
The telescope is used by a dozen Jesuit astronomers, as well as students from Wheeling Jesuit University and other academic research institutions. Some of the data it gathers finds its way to the desk of William Stoeger, S.J. In his office near the university in Tucson, Stoeger crunches, compares and analyzes the information in his quest for knowledge and truth. A theoretical astrophysicist by training, Stoeger spends his days applying physics to understanding astronomical phenomena.
He used to study black holes, but now he concentrates on cosmological evolution—in short, the Big Bang.