Research Highlights-Planetary1

The work of the Planetary Sciences group at the Vatican Observatory is primarily centered on the nature of small bodies within our own solar system.


Main Belt Asteroids and Trans-Neptunian Objects: With collaborators Tegler (Northern Arizona) and Romanishin (Oklahoma), Consolmagno is engaged in a long-term survey at the VATT of Trans-Neptunian Objects, looking for correlations of their colors (indicating their composition) with their size and orbital parameters, and recording light curves that can eventually provide information about their shapes and possible spots on their surfaces.

Boyle, with collaborators Cernis and Laugalys (Vilnius), is doing astrometry on asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects, including the discovery of a number of new objects.

Consolmagno is a member of an International Team led by Turrini (INAF-IAPS, Tor Vergata) at the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) in Bern, Switzerland, working on using knowledge of basaltic achondrite meteorites to constrain the evolution of the differentiated asteroid Vesta, recently visited by the Dawn spacecraft.

Near Earth Asteroids: Near Earth Objects (NEOs) are the closest asteroids to Earth. They are potentially hazardous objects, but they are also possible targets for future manned and unmanned missions, for both scientific and commercial exploitation. The major difficulty in characterizing such objects is that they are small, faint, and fast-moving: the time from discovery to when they are no longer able to be observed may be as short as one week.

Kikwaya with Boyle and Corbally and collaborators Hergenrother, Tedesco, and others at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) and the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in Tucson, are developing the ability of the VATT to observe and characterize Near Earth Objects (NEOs). VATTSpec has been successfully tested by Kikwaya and Corbally for asteroid observations; with an improved guider, they expect to be able to obtain visible and near-IR spectra for objects as faint as 21st magnitude. Eight color filters have been obtained by Tedesco at PSI to be used in the Tholen classification of NEO asteroids, and are being tested at the VATT and validated against standard star fields.

Gabor and collaborators at Steward Observatory are developing plans to coordinate and robotize the VATT, Bok, and Mt. Bigelow telescopes with an eye to synoptic observations which (along with other targets) can play an important role in the recovery and characterization of NEOs.

Meteor inverted

Meteors: Kikwaya, with Brown and Campbell from Western University, Ontario (WU), has published the first reliable estimates of the density of small meteoroids. With collaborators Brown, Campbell, and Cooke at WU, he continues to work on measuring the physical properties of meteors, using this information to determine the different physical and chemical natures of their sources, the comets and asteroids.

A project of setting up a fireball network in Tucson is already underway by Kikwaya in collaboration with Hergenrother and with active participation from the LPL, the PSI, and Cooke from UWO. NASA, through Cooke, are providing four all-sky cameras.

A project of setting up a fireball network in Tucson is already underway by Kikwaya in collaboration with Hergenrother and with active participation from the LPL, the PSI, and Cooke from UWO. NASA, through Cooke, are providing four all-sky cameras.

The ultimate hope is that once we have the record of a fireball that produces meteorites, using these cameras to help us find and recover those meteorites, we can study the phenomenon of a meteorite’s fall from its entry in the atmosphere to meteorite recovery. In this way we could compare the chemical and physical properties of the meteoroid, including its bulk density, grain density, heat capacity, and thermal conductivity, as inferred from the bolide light curve and spectra, to the physical characteristics of the recovered meteorite itself.


Meteorites: Meteorite physical property measurements are the primary work done at the newly-upgraded laboratory in Castel Gandolfo. It is already, arguably, the best-equipped lab in the world for such measurements.

For the past 15 years, Consolmagno and Macke with collaborators have surveyed the physical properties of meteorites, beginning with density, porosity, and magnetic susceptibility measurements of the extensive Vatican collection but eventually carrying out these measures at a number of other meteorite collections around the world. Current work in progress includes developing techniques to measure the densities of meteorite samples larger than those previously covered, and to measure the thermal properties of meteorites.

Macke has further applied the techniques for measuring meteorite physical properties developed at the VO and the University of Central Florida (UCF) with collaborator Britt (UCF) to measure the physical properties of lunar samples and Martian meteorites, applying these to our understanding of the nature of the Moon and Mars.

One important aspect of this work is comparing these various meteorite properties to determine the relationship between magnetic, thermal, and physical (density or porosity) properties. Such work will also involve continued collaboration with Britt at UCF, Opeil at Boston College, and other collaborators. The ultimate goal is to integrate this information into a more general picture of the physical state of the asteroid belt, to see how the densities of asteroids vary with distance from the Sun and what that might tell us about planetary formation and early evolution.

As one of the most accessible sources of meteorite material for research, the curational activities of the meteorite laboratory represent an important contribution to meteorite and planetary sciences. As an example, more than half of papers (25 of 42, according to the NASA Astrophysics Data System) published in the past ten years analyzing the unique Martian meteorite Chassigny have been based on thin sections provided from the Vatican Observatory collection.