In 2016, NASA launched a probe into space with one mission: fly to Bennu, an asteroid about 200 million kilometers from Earth, collect a small sample, and return home. But after seeing some images of the probe on the asteroid, they realized that Bennu was not what they thought. What surprised them most was its surface.
Early temperature readings led them to believe it would be covered in small pebbles or small stones. Instead, the images showed round rocks and a surface that acted as a plastic ball pool. “It turns out that the particles that make up Bennu’s exterior are so loose and loosely bound together that if a person stepped on Bennu they would feel very little resistance, as if they were stepping into a plastic ball pit typical of children’s parks,” NASA explained in a publication.
Anyway, the special ship that the human being sent there collected the samples and is now heading to Earth. OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to arrive at Earth on September 24. If their return is successful, a capsule carrying rock fragments and dust Bennu will fall in Utah (USA) with enough material for scientists to analyze it.
Space.com describes the asteroid as “one of the most dangerous asteroids currently known” because if it collides with Earth, it would cause a “planet-wide disruption.” Although the possibility is quite unlikely: 1 in 2,700 between the years 2175 and 2199, according to NASA. That is why the scientific community has rushed to recover samples from the asteroid to study, which could even provide clues about how life on Earth may have originated.
To do this, NASA has asked the Vatican for help. Wait, the Church? To understand how and why, you must first know that, although few know it, the Roman Catholic Church has had an eminent observatory run by Jesuit astronomers since the 1930s. Devout Catholic men who study the cosmos.
The origin of this equipment goes back far in history, to the mid-19th century, when the priest Angelo Secchi built a study base on the roof of the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Rome. There they carried out astronomical research to demonstrate the “compatibility of Catholicism and science”.
Turning to Church Technology
Well, returning to the story of our asteroid Bennu, this Vatican observatory has an immense collection of meteorite remains. In total, he has around 1,200 specimens in his treasury. And Brother Robert J. Macke, curator of the collection, has designed a custom device capable of studying the sample that OSIRIS-REx brings us.
Turns out Macke is an expert on space rocks with holes in them. Together with his colleagues at the Vatican Observatory, he has perfected techniques to measure density and the porosity of meteorites, space rocks that have survived the fall from space through the atmosphere. As explained in this Mashable report, NASA has asked him to leave Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope sometimes spends the summer, and will head to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to help scientists use their pycnometer.
“I don’t see any conflict between faith and science,” explained Macke, who believes both in the Bible and in the possibility that the universe is 13.8 billion years old. “There are people who interpret the Scriptures literally, and that’s not doing the Scriptures justice. If you look at, for example, the Genesis story, it’s not a recipe book for creation. It’s not really a story. It was intended to be a story to express a fundamental truth,” he comments.
NASA also has no problem, nor does it see a conflict between “faith and science” and, after several obstacles in their mission, they urgently need Macke’s help. The Japanese were unable to obtain these key measurements. And no pycnometer available on the market works as expected. The reason is that, to avoid sample contamination, NASA’s conservation team has established rules for what can and cannot go into the hole. And only about 15 materials were approved, such as stainless steel, aluminum and glass.
Macke believed he could build an optimal pycnometer for NASA, even with such limitations. And he got it. Together with students from the University of Arizona he made an instrument with small steel chambers, metal tubes and valves that open and close. NASA paid for the manufacturing parts, but Macke did not receive any compensation, nor did he ask for it. One advantage of hiring a Jesuit for the job is the vow of poverty.