Telescope on a field of stars. Literal Telescope Names.

Literal Telescope Names: What’s On the Tin

They say there are two gateway drugs to science: dinosaurs and space. So it’s no wonder the names for astronomy related projects tend to be quite… romantic. We named what we saw in the sky after old gods, and we kept that theme going when we travelled to them. Often space projects are named for Roman myths (Apollo, Mercury). Sometimes they’re named for those qualities we value (Curiosity, Spirit). Occasionally… well, occasionally they’re named after Star Trek. But when it comes to telescopes, the poetry sometimes breaks down a bit. And that’s how we get these very literal telescope names.

Telescope on a field of stars. Literal Telescope Names.

They’re exactly what they sound like

Large Binocular Telescope

The largest single piece telescope mirror is located in Arizona. By using two separate mirrors 8.4 m mirrors, it’s able to collect as much light as a single 11.8 m mirror would without requiring even more delicate manufacturing.

Large Binocular Telescope

Somebody’s eyes are watching…

It may be that the researchers involved thought the simple Large Binocular Telescope name for the main project would let them reach a bit with their acronyms for everything else. One of the attached instruments is the Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Spectroscopic Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extragalactic Research. LUCIFER (now LUCI) may be the biggest acronym reach I have ever seen… and I did my PhD in NMR spectroscopy.

Very Large Array

Astronical objects are capable of emitting radio waves. By detecting and analyzing these waves, we can learn a lot about their composition. For some experiments, it’s useful to use multiple radio telescopes working together. And the more telescopes involved, the more detail astronomers can find. So when the American National Radio Astronomy Observatory wanted to build an array of 27 telescopes, they decided to keep the name simple and call it the Very Large Array. Sometimes you want something to be exactly what it says on the tin.

Series of radio telescopes

What’s better than one telescope? A whole bunch of telescopes! Image by Hajor

Their British counterparts, on the other hand, were apparently feeling a bit romantic during their naming process. Like many scientists, they decided to have some fun with acronyms and name their array the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network. I should hope that at conferences the researchers at least occasionally justify MERLIN related discoveries with “A wizard did it!”. I would, anyway.

Extremely Large Telescope

While making a single mirror that’s more than 20 m would be an extreme manufacturing challenge, building the mirror in multiple segments makes it possible to collect more light. This time, it’s the Europeans getting in on the generic naming game by calling their telescope with 39.3 m mirror the Extremely Large Telescope.

They were also, for a time, working on an Overwhelmingly Large Telescope but decided to focus merely on being extremely large for the time being. Construction on the extreme option began in May 2017, with operation set to begin in 2024.

Of course, all this leads to an obvious question. As telescopes get larger and larger, what do you call the next one? Will we see an Absurdly Large Telescope? Hilariously Large Telescope? Ludicrously Large Telescope?

I for one will not be satisfied until I learn that the Telescope That Ate Manhattan is operational.