Heavens above

Four celestial bodies have been named after three Jesuits and a Pope.


In addition to history’s many starring roles for Jesuits, there is one more development, albeit in a different firmament.

Four asteroids were recently named after three Jesuits and a Pope. The asteroids 562971 Johannhagen, 551878 Stoeger and 565184 Janusz honour Jesuit priests Johann Hagen, Bill Stoeger and Robert Janusz, while 560974 Ugoboncompagni commemorates Pope Gregory XIII, whose birth name was Ugo Boncompagni. The Gregorian Calendar is named after him, and he is also credited with starting the tradition of papal astronomers and observatories.

For a wonderful perspective on this, check out Rome-based Elisabetta Povoledo’s report in The New York Times, published late last month. She says: “Centuries after the Holy See muzzled Roman Catholic stargazers for questioning the centrality of the Earth in the cosmos, Jesuit astronomers from the Vatican’s in-house observatory are increasingly writing their names in the heavens.

“The naming of asteroids — which are also known as minor planets or small solar system bodies — is overseen by a group of professional astronomers, part of the International Astronomical Union. The group is presented every month with a list of proposed names and citations, but not all asteroids are labelled; only about 3.8 per cent of the 620,000 numbered asteroids have been named, following specific guidelines.”

In her inimitable style, she also says: “Jesuits, while not quite yet as numerous as the stars, have had more than 30 asteroids assigned to them since the space rocks began to be formally named in 1801.”

Also, as described in Tiziana Campisi’s report in The Vatican News, the process of naming a celestial body is not a quick process. “According to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the naming of a particular asteroid (or minor planet) can take, in some cases, decades. When a new minor planet is discovered, it is given a provisional name based on the date of discovery.

“When the object’s orbit is determined in such a way that its position can be reliably predicted in the distant future, usually after it has been observed four or more times as it approaches Earth, then it is assigned a definitive number, issued in succession by the IAU’s Minor Planet Centre.

Orbital positions of asteroids named after Jesuits, created by Br Robert Macke SJ, Vatican Observatory.

“At this point its discoverer is invited to suggest a name. There are also guidelines in this regard: names of pets or names of a commercial nature are not allowed and names of individuals or events known primarily for political or military reasons cannot be used until 100 years after the death of the individual or the date of the event.”

As the Catholic news and information website Aleteia points out, the Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest active astronomical observatories in the world – founded in the late 16th century, around the year 1582.

It was only when I read the material on the Aleteia site that I realised the little-known connection between NASA and the Catholic Church. While it’s well known that the Sea of Tranquility was the chosen touchdown site for the Apollo 11 lunar module piloted by the late Neil Armstrong, accompanied on 20 July 1969 by Buzz Aldrin, I didn’t know that there was a strong religious echo behind this.

On that historic day, when Armstrong uttered the famous words “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”, the events that unfolded on the lunar surface brought lasting resonance to the initial 1961 objective set out by President John F. Kennedy, two years before he was assassinated in Dallas, not just to perform a crewed lunar landing by American astronauts, but to return them safely to Earth.

As the Aleteia article points out, a press release from the Vatican Observatory explains how the Catholic Church had not only influenced astronomy, but also found a landmark echo in space exploration: “Jesuit Father Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671), for example, developed the system of lunar nomenclature that is still used today. When the Apollo 11 mission landed in the lunar Sea of Tranquility in 1969, the name came from Riccioli.”

Years ago, I read an article that explained how Armstrong and Aldrin found it hard to sleep after they finished their lunar exploration and returned to the cramped cabin of the Eagle before it blasted off to dock with Columbia, the command module piloted by Michael Collins, who died in 2021. That story of how sleep eluded the two lunar explorers is wonderfully told by Dr Tony Phillips in 2014 and can be seen here: Wide Awake on the Sea of Tranquillity on the NASA site.

But surely the last word in this subject should go to my friend and colleague, Fr Justin Glyn SJ, who posted this accurate and pithy comment on my LinkedIn post about the asteroids named after Jesuits. He summed up the subject in just four words: “Jesuit rocks – Jesuits rock”.

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia

Feature photo by Soly Moses on Pexels.