Posted: Tuesday Jan. 29th, 2008
Talk about your plum winter break assignment. Nate Lust, a graduate student at the University of Central Florida, is headed to the Pope’s summer home to help modernize a telescope built in 1935.
The Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. It is located at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, just outside Rome. The observatory has five telescopes.
Lust, who helped install and fully automate a new telescope at the Robinson Observatory at UCF’s main campus in August, will be working with astronomers at the Vatican to upgrade one of the telescopes there using computer software as well as some customized hardware. He will also act as a consultant to determine what else will be needed to better use the telescope for observations. A camera system to capture images is one possible addition. “I’m a pretty even keel person, but I’m a little excited,” Lust said. “I may not only get to meet the pope, but the fact is that 1,000 years from now when I’m gone, the telescope will still be there and I will have been the one that worked on it. That’s pretty cool.”
The project came about because of a conversation between Dan Britt, director of the UCF observatory, and Guy Consolmagno, vice director of the Vatican Observatory. They chatted during the 2007 Planetary Sciences Conference sponsored by UCF in Orlando.
“I was telling a fellow researcher about what Nate had done for us here,” said Britt, an associate astronomy professor. “We got to talking, and he asked if we could send him over to render them some assistance. This would be a great way to start a new collaboration with a top institution”
Britt has conducted several research projects with the Vatican Observatory, and he participated in the NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission. He has visited Castel Gandolfo twice for research with the Vatican astronomers.
Lust jumped at the chance, especially because the cost of the trip is covered through grants from Florida Space Grant and Britt’s NASA research projects. Lust will live at the Papal Palace while he completes the work. He departs Jan. 2 and is expected to return in mid-February.
Once the work at the Vatican is complete, Lust will continue working at the Robinson Observatory. In the fall, he begins his graduate work. The partnership with the Vatican means that he will have access to the telescopes there, which will help him complete a study on binary asteroids that eventually will become part of his Ph.D. thesis.
Lust’s future goals seem plausible, especially if he does a good job in Italy and can use the pope as a reference on his resume.
“In the long term, if we build a base on the moon, I’d like to install a telescope there,” Lust said. “It’s planned for something like 2020. That gives me time to get my Ph.D., get known in my field and be ready.”
Lust also would like to teach, perhaps as part of the growing Planetary Sciences Group at UCF. The group has grown from one professor to six, including well-respected astronomers with several NASA research grants worth millions of dollars. Professors in the department have been involved in observations of planets via NASA’s Spitzer telescope and high-profile missions such as Stardust, Deep Impact and Mars Pathfinder.