Chief Vatican Astronomer Welcomes Landing of "Curiosity"

An artist's impression of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover.
An artist's impression of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The head of the Vatican Observatory has welcomed the successful landing of a roving science laboratory on the planet Mars.

“I think everybody should be happy with the success of [the start of] this mission,” Jesuit Father José Gabriel Funes told Vatican Radio today. “We now have to wait for results, to see if we can learn more about Mars and the possibility of organic elements on the surface of Mars.”

NASA’s new science rover “Curiosity” landed on the Martian surface shortly after 1.30 a.m. EST, following a delicate and highly sophisticated landing operation.  The $2.5 billion mobile laboratory will now begin a two-year mission examining the Red Planet, led by NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

One of Curiosity’s main objectives is to hunt for soil-based signatures of life, and send back data to prepare for a future human mission. “Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes,” NASA says. “In other words, its mission is to determine the planet's "habitability."”

Fr. Funes said the Church should have nothing to fear from any discoveries it might make, such as finding extra-terrestrial life forms, adding that the Church is deeply committed to scientific research. “That’s the reason why the [Holy See] has an observatory,” he said. “Whatever the truth might be, we are open to new results, once they are confirmed by the scientific community.”

In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano in 2008, Fr. Funes said life on Mars could not be ruled out and God could have created intelligent beings in outer space. He said that according to his “scientific judgment,” the existence of extraterrestrials is a “possibility”.

“Astronomers contend that the universe is made up of a hundred billion galaxies, each of which is composed of hundreds of billions of stars,” he explained. “Many of these, or almost all of them, could have planets. [So] how can you exclude that life has developed somewhere else?”

He also denied their existence of other intelligent life-forms would contradict Christian belief.

“As there exist many creatures on earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God,” he said. “This doesn’t contradict our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God. To say it as St. Francis [of Assisi], if we consider some earthly creatures as ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ why couldn’t we also talk of an ‘extraterrestrial brother’? He would also belong to creation.”

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory

Vatican Observatory