The Vatican
Vatican Library

A unique technology which is employed to preserve satellite images of the sky is being used to digtise and preserve one of the world's largest collection of ancient books.

The special file format used by the European Space Agency (ESA) on most of its satellites to capture deep-sky astronomical images will now help the delicate task of scanning the age-old manuscripts in the Vatican Library. The files thus scanned and digitised can be used for centuries to come.

The Flexible Image Transporting System (FITS), which was developed by the ESA in collaboration with the NASA in the 1970s, stemmed from radio astronomy. The format is used by the space agency to preserve data from its numerous space missions.

"Any kind of data you can use for astronomy can fit inside this format. If you have a tool that can read FITS today, you can read FITS files from 20 years ago. It's always backwards compatible," Pedro Osuna, chief of ESA's scientific archives, has said.

Dr Giuseppe Di Persio of Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics is currently working with the Vatican Library in Rome on a pilot project, helping to scan part of the massive collection using the technology. "Most space missions, like the Hubble Space Telescope, use FITS to store and study scientific data," Dr Di Persio has said.

"It's very dangerous for the manuscripts every time someone touches them," says Luciano Ammenti, director of the Vatican's Information Technology Center. Digitising will help preserve the originals without any harm.

Pressed against a plate of glass while scanning, the delicate pages of the manuscripts are likely to be distorted. But the scanner software developed for the project automatically navigates the different angles, generating an accurate, flat image.

FITS files can be read without being converted into another format, which could lose some data or be incompatible with future systems.

The Vatican Library, which came into existence in 1475, is one of the oldest in the world and has tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts and codices which existed even before the invention of the printing press - some are 1800 years old.