ESA Collaborates With The Vatican In Heritage Preservation Effort

The Vatican and a space agency have a plan to preserve a treasure trove of historical documents.

ESA and Vatican Library work together.
M. Valentini / ESA

The Vatican and a space agency have a plan to preserve a treasure trove of historical documents.

What do the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Vatican have in common? Both institutions hold in their possession inestimable heritage data that needs to be preserved for the benefit of humanity.

For instance, the Vatican Apostolic Library boasts an ancient collection of manuscripts and books. Founded in 1475, the Vatican Library is one of the oldest in the world, and houses tens of thousands of manuscripts and codices from before the printing press was even invented.

Some of these invaluable documents are 1,800-years-old; their precious contents have stood the test of time and are now embarking on a new journey that ushers them into the digital age, the ESA revealed in a news release.

As per a 2016 agreement known as the Joint Declaration, the Vatican Library and the ESA have committed to the safeguarding of these cultural artifacts. As a result, the library has begun to digitalize its substantial collection of books and documents with the help of an advanced technology rooted in radio astronomy.

Its system is based on a Flexible Image Transport System (FITS) format, developed by ESA and NASA in the 1970s, which is able to scan the fragile manuscripts without damaging them.

“The Library is now preserving their manuscripts digitally by using data formats that were originally developed in the space domain,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes.

The Vatican’s valued codices, more than 80,000 in number and most of them dating back to the Middle Ages and the Humanism Period, will eventually become available to the public through the Digital Vatican Library — a project initiated as early as 2010 and which aims to provide future generations free access to high-resolution images of all these treasured documents, notes the news release.

Similarly, the ESA is the keeper of an impressive volume of scientific data. The space agency has launched a Heritage Data Programme to facilitate the conservation of an entire archive of satellite data comprising countless Earth observations, which are also open to public access.

In this endeavor, the ESA has benefited from the digital procedures, file formats, and tools that the Vatican further developed, based on the FITS system.

This collaboration between the ESA and the Vatican ensures the exchange of “expertise, know-how and resources” with the goal to preserve and offer “worldwide accessibility” to their cultural and scientific patrimonies, noted Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues, Archivist and Librarian of the Holy Roman Church.

According to Philippe Brunet, the European Commission’s Director for Space Policy, Copernicus and Defence, making this heritage data and knowledge “widely accessible and exploitable” has a tremendous influence on stimulating “innovation and growth in Europe.”