In December 2009, astronauts Steven L. Smith and John M. Grunsfeld leave Discovery
to make repairs on the Hubble telescope. In the bottom section of the picture, you can see Discovery's wings. Undoubtedly, this photo combines two of the most exciting and influential missions NASA has conducted. NASA/JSC
Leviathan of Parsonstown
Our no. 1
Scientists spend their lives in the pursuit of truth, exploring the secrets of the universe with the help of expensive, sophisticated scientific instruments. And sometimes they give those instruments really, really silly names. Here, we rank the most, uh, creative names that real adult scientists gave to the telescopes that help them explore the cosmos.
European Extremely Large Telescope
The European Extremely Large Telescope is…well, it’s an extremely large (optical and near-infrared) telescope. The ESO is currently constructing it in the Chilean desert. It easily beat another extremely large telescope called the Giant Magellan Telescope because somehow “extremely large” is just way more ridiculous than “giant”. It did, however, almost lose its spot on the list to the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope, another ESO project—but the Overwhelming One was too large for its own good, and the ESO ultimately scrapped it.
Back in 1992, the FAr-Ultraviolet Space Telescope rode on NASA’s Atlantis space shuttle as one of the experiments on the ATLAS-1 Spacelab. Its job was to capture wide-field images in far-ultraviolet light. FAUST won a spot on this list over the more recent FUSE (Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer) mission, which ended in 2007, because which one would you prefer to travel through space with—a piece of string, or a scholar who’s not afraid to bargain with the devil?
Massive Monolithic Telescope
Arizona’s MMT Observatory used to house the Multiple Mirror Telescope. In 1998, however, it upgraded to the superiorly-named Massive Monolithic Telescope, which replaced the multiple mirrors of its predecessor with a single 21-foot-wide reflector.
Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope
Balance is important. A world that contains the extremely large must also make way for the extremely little. Hence the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope, a set of two wide-field scopes (KELT-North in Arizona and KELT-South in South Africa) that work together to look for exoplanets.
…Or with science topics
The Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope, better known as BLAST, is one of many serious scientific devices sporting silly names. Talk about that, among other science topics.
This EGRET is not a type of heron—it’s the Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope. Mounted on NASA’s Compton Gamma Ray Observatory satellite (pictured here), EGRET detected gamma rays from orbit during its active years in the 90s, helping scientists study distant pulsars as well as our own moon and sun. This telescope wins out against other well-named gamma-ray instruments such as INTEGRAL (INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory), BIGRAT (BIcentennial Gamma RAy Telescope), and the proposed CANGAROO (Collaboration between Australian and Nippon for a GAmma Ray Observatory in the Outback) because it’s clever without being a try-hard. (Seriously, CANGAROO. Calm down.)
Belgium has been home to a monastic order known as the Trappists for over a century. Since 2010, it can also lay claim to the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope. Located in Chile and controlled from Belgium, TRAPPIST helps researchers find comets and exoplanets. The University of Liège, which co-runs this telescope, has also proposed a project named after a Belgian spice cookie: a set of four near-infrared telescopes called SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars).
Large Binocular Telescope
On its face, the Large Binocular Telescope doesn’t seem like such a crazy name. It’s a large optical telescope with two mirrors—hence bi-nocular. But when you look at the picture, you realize…this thing looks like a giant version of handheld binoculars. Which makes the name perfectly on-the-nose. Which is amazing.
The High-Energy Antimatter Telescope was a balloon-borne instrument. The name is pretty good, though it’s not as impressive as BLAST. Launched in 1994 and again in 1995, HEAT detected electrons and positrons (the antimatter twin of the electron) that originated in cosmic rays.
Popular Science is looking for the best-named scientific instruments. We’re concentrating on physical devices, rather than algorithms, surveys, systems, or processes—which means amazing names like GANDALF (Gas AND Absorption Line Fitting algorithm) and GADZOOKS! (Gadolinium Antineutrino Detector Zealously Outperforming Old Kamiokande, Super!) won’t make the cut.