From time to time here at Answers in Genesis we get inquiries about a telescope called LUCIFER that the Vatican supposedly owns. This story has been circulating around the internet for nearly a decade. It certainly sounds shocking, so it’s no wonder why people ask us about this. Is there any truth to this rumor?
Many people are surprised to learn that the Vatican even has an observatory. The history of the Vatican Observatory goes back two and a half centuries. During its history, there has been some turmoil and several moves to escape the light and other hindrances that large cities, such as Rome, pose to doing astronomy. Therefore, more than a half-century ago the Vatican Observatory established a research group at the Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona in Tucson, while the Vatican Observatory’s headquarters remained in Italy.
Vatican astronomers used some of the facilities of Steward Observatory, but in 1993 the 1.8-meter Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) opened on Mount Graham in southeast Arizona. The same year, Steward Observatory’s Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) also opened on Mount Graham. A little more than a decade later, the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) opened on Mount Graham. With twin 8.4-meter mirrors, the LBT is one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. The LBT is owned and operated by a consortium of institutions in the United States and from around the world.1 Collectively, the three facilities atop Mount Graham, VATT, SMT, and LBT, comprise the Mount Graham International Observatory (MGIO).
Astronomers mount various instruments on telescopes for research. They usually come up with catchy, and often humorous, names for these instruments. For instance, 35 years ago I used an infrared photometer on a telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona. Since warm objects emit infrared radiation, it is important to cool infrared detectors, or else the signal you are trying to measure will be swamped with “noise.” The system I used cooled the detector to a very low temperature with a special refrigerator unit using liquid helium. Some cooling systems vent off gas, but this one didn’t. Therefore, they called this the Closed Circuit Cooling Photometer (CCCP). This title was descriptive, though it wasn’t very interesting. Or was it? This was during the Cold War, and many people knew that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in Russian and in the Cyrillic alphabet was CCCP. Therefore, most people on the mountain jokingly called this “the people’s photometer.”
While this cute moniker wasn’t official, others have been. An example is a very complex, useful instrument designed for the LBT. At its inception, the system was called Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Spectroscopic Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extragalactic Research (LUCIFER). The full title was descriptive of what the instrument was to do, but it was a mouthful. And notice that they had to play games with the acronym to get it to spell out anything memorable. I’m sure that the astronomers who came up with this one were amused.
However, the amusement didn’t last long, for as word of it spread, many critics of the Roman Catholic Church made the connection with the LUCIFER instrument for the LBT sharing a mountain with the VATT, which very quickly (but incorrectly) morphed into the Vatican owning a telescope called LUCIFER. The firestorm that ensued probably was responsible for renaming the instrument LUCI in 2012, six years before LUCI was completed and went into service (such a complex instrument can require years of planning and development). Note that LUCI is not a telescope but rather is an instrument that attaches to a telescope. Also notice that the LUCI instrument attaches only to the LBT, not the VATT. They may be at the same observatory (MGIO), but they are separate telescopes, owners/collaborators and systems.
Despite the rechristening of LUCIFER as LUCI and the fact that LUCIFER never was the name of a telescope, let alone a telescope owned by the Vatican, this false rumor keeps making the rounds. So, if you know someone repeating this false rumor, please refer them to this article for correction.