The Vatican is known for lot of things, but not many people are aware of its world-renowned Vatican Observatory, home of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. That may change with the recent announcement of its discovery of a new trans-Neptunian not-quite-a-planet orbiting beyond Neptune which astronomers believe could help them locate the rumored Planet 9.
“This one TNO is just a piece of the puzzle — but we at the Vatican Observatory are happy to add this piece.”
Chris Graney, an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, told the Catholic News Agency (CAN) the trans-Neptunian object (TNO) was discovered on December 3, 2021, by Jesuit priest and astronomer Richard Boyle using the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope located not in Italy but in southwest Arizona. Not quite as big as dwarf planet Pluto, this TNO orbits the sun once every 286 years – for comparison, Neptune’s full orbit is 165 years while Pluto’s is 248 years. Until its size and composition are more accurately determined, this TNO is called 2021 XD7. (More drawings of its orbit relative to the main planets can be seen here.) If you wonder whether the Vatican is serious about astronomy, Peter Veres of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, who calculated 2021 XD7’s orbit, is an alumnus of the Vatican Observatory’s Summer School for young professional astronomers held at the Observatory’s headquarters at Castel Gandolfo near Rome.
“Fr. Boyle was using the telescope with its “VATT4k” camera when he found TNO 2021 XD7. This is an astronomical camera specially designed for photometric surveys and for observing faint objects.”
Could Fr. Boyle be on his way to being the first astronomer to find Planet 9? Chris Graney says the next piece of the puzzle will be to monitor 2021 XD7 and determine its physical characteristics. After that, the scope of observation will be widened to hopefully find other TNOs in close proximity to it. Theoretically, a cluster of TNOs could be formed by the gravitational pull of a Planet 9, so they could act as an astronomical pointer aimed right at it.
Planet 9 is still theoretical and most astronomers are waiting for the construction of the survey telescope at the Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile in 2023 to add TNOs to the current total of at least 815. In the meantime, the Vatican Observatory, one of the world’s oldest active observatories dating back to 1582, keeps scanning the stars in Castel Gandolfo and Arizona. And conspiracy theorists keep theorizing that the Vatican has a secret telescope dubbed LUCIFER that it is using to find alien life forms – one of which many believe is the devil or the anti-Christ – and use the knowledge to take control of the world.