Why Name a Telescope?

Two weeks ago I slipped up when I wrote that I named my new binocular telescope Zubenelgenubi after the famous double star in Libra. That name really belongs to my 12-inch Dobsonian in a small dome that’s part of our Jarnac Observatory complex. Gemini is the correct name for the 10-inch JMI binocular telescope, in honor the NASA program that prepared humans to fly to the Moon. The Gemini program included the first spacewalk by an American astronaut; the first rendezvous of spacecraft (Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 were, at their closest, about a foot apart); and the first orbital docking of a Gemini spacecraft and an Agena target vehicle. These were heady days, exciting and hopeful. Now, Gemini is the name of a telescope that allows me to search for comets with both eyes.

A handful of David Levy's friends await the onset of night at his Jarnac Observatory. Left to right: Esther (a 10-inch SCT), Flaire (a 14-inch SCT), Obadiah, Clyde, Pegasus (described in the accompanying text), and, in the foreground at far right, the 10-inch binocular scope Gemini.
David Levy
This begs the larger question — why bother to name telescopes? Isn’t it silly? In a small profile of me that appeared in Meade’s 2007 telescope catalog, I’m quoted as saying “I give every telescope a name. Because part of the majesty of the sky is the majesty of the instrument you view it with.”

For me, naming a telescope is as natural a thing to do as owning one. The tradition began with my first telescope, Echo, named for the passive communications satellite launched in August 1960. For a few years, Echo was my only telescope, and it still is one of my most prized possessions. In the late summer of 1964, fellow amateur David Zackon lent me his 8-inch Cave Newtonian while he was away at school. Eventually my parents agreed to buy the telescope from him for $400, and it is now named Pegasus. It has some of the finest optics of any telescope I own.

Throughout the decades, other telescopes joined and left my band of brothers. Today’s collection is divided among three groups — scopes intended for visual comet hunting; scopes for photographic comet hunting; and scopes for sightseeing. Their names range from the stately — Gemini, Miranda (a 16-inch Newtonian), and Pegasus — to the personal, like Clyde, my 14-inch Celestron. While it’s named for the late astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, it’s less for his discovery of Pluto than it is for his personality and unforgettable sense of humor. He was a true mentor who moved me as he inspired many others, and I think of his unforgivable puns each time I use the telescope.

My collection offers a history lesson in the evolution of amateur telescope design over the last half century. The long-tubed Newtonians on their unwieldy mounts were state-of-the-art during the 1960s and ‘70s. The newer compound telescopes, each with a computer standing beside it, represent the current state of automated imaging. Obadiah, a modified 12-inch Schmidt camera made by Meade, can capture 17th-magnitude stars in 30-second CCD exposures. Each telescope offers its own particular magic, and each is best for a specific type of observing.

I also think it’s a good idea to name a telescope regardless of whether you officially own it. In my case, I consider a telescope mine if one of the following conditions applies: I bought it; I paid for at least part of it; or I bumped into it. As such, I own the 61-inch telescope on Mount Bigelow north of Tucson. One night while rushing across the observing floor in complete darkness I slammed into it, nearly knocking myself out. The mighty telescope didn’t budge, and its target, Comet Halley, was perfectly imaged. This week, as Atlantis repairs and upgrades the Hubble Space Telescope, I get the feeling that this wonderful instrument is partially mine too. But this telescope really belongs to all of us who love the stars.

15 thoughts on “Why Name a Telescope?

  1. Don R.

    David,
    Your thoughts have piqued me; I’ve named many things in my life, bicycles, dogs, cars and boats among them, but never an optical instrument; and they should be named. Which brings up the dilema: What should the name(s) be? Tom Corbett, my intro to the excitement of space? Alan Shepard, my hero? My father who delineated the heavens to me from his knowledge from his Navy days? Or, after the greats that went before? Gaaah! It’s not an easy decision lightly taken. My mind whirls like the hurtling moons of Barsoom!

    Don R.

    PS: I very much admire and enjoy your writing.

  2. shawn Filbey

    Sometimes it’s just that something appropriate comes up. My C-11 has been named Mistress by my girlfriend, as I spend most of my money and nights with ‘her’.

  3. Sheri B.

    David, I read with interest and amusement in your practice of naming telescopes as one would family pets. The rational is very sound, the telescope due to its path to ownership and its capabilities gives it a ‘personality’ in our arsenal of observing equipment. I can’t say I have named a telescope, more so refer to them by the tube colours. All of them over the years surprisingly had a different colour! However, I name hard drives with star or constellation names. Using the name of either known favourites or newly identified finds.

    PS. I enjoy your blog writings. Good to see you are getting more space to write in this media.

  4. Piotr Nowak, Poland

    I named my telescope “Levy” for you David because your books, programes and articles gave me so much passion in astronomy…

  5. Paul Temple

    My telescope was named soon after I built it in 1992. After buying an 8″ mirror and diagonal for 50 dollars the name “Bargain Bucket” just seemed to fit. It is still a star party favorite with tourists. One year at an Astronomy day in Kansas City I was away from the scope for a few moments. I heard a commotion and saw a man leading his wife and kids over to my scope. I started to come over when I saw his excitement, then he turns to his wife and says ” Look at this piece of junk, if he can do it then I can do it!” Needless to say I turned around and went eleswhere! Still works good though!

  6. Paul Temple

    My telescope was named soon after I built it in 1992. After buying an 8″ mirror and diagonal for 50 dollars the name “Bargain Bucket” just seemed to fit. It is still a star party favorite with tourists. One year at an Astronomy day in Kansas City I was away from the scope for a few moments. I heard a commotion and saw a man leading his wife and kids over to my scope. I started to come over when I saw his excitement, then he turns to his wife and says ” Look at this piece of junk, if he can do it then I can do it!” Needless to say I turned around and went eleswhere! Still works good though!

  7. Steve

    When I was in first grade way back in 1968 we watched a science movie in class where the narrator described something in the sky as being too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Another kid near me asserted that the “naked eye” was the most powerful telescope in the world! I tried to tell him it just means your eye, but he wouldn’t change his mind. Many years later when I ground my own six inch mirror and put together my homebuilt Newtonion I realized the perfect name for it is: “The Naked Eye.” It may not be the most powerful scope in the world, but to me, it’s the best!

  8. Steve

    When I was in first grade way back in 1968 we watched a science movie in class where the narrator described something in the sky as being too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Another kid near me asserted that the “naked eye” was the most powerful telescope in the world! I tried to tell him it just means your eye, but he wouldn’t change his mind. Many years later when I ground my own six inch mirror and put together my homebuilt Newtonion I realized the perfect name for it is: “The Naked Eye.” It may not be the most powerful scope in the world, but to me, it’s the best!

  9. Bill "Klaus" M.

    I never though about naming my telescope until the last 4 years. I had an Orion 90 MM refractor from 1972-1988, then an Orion 4.5 inch Newtonian from 1990-, and I referred to each of them as “the scope.” In 2004 I acquired a 10 inch Meade, and in 2005, a 5 inch Celestron NexStar. To “id” them, and keep track of their use, the Orion is “Legacy”, Celestron is “Robot”, and the Meade is “Big Eye.” Thanks for bringing the stars down to earth, and helping all of us to enjoy the heavens.

  10. Rahul Zota

    David, your idea of naming a telescope has inspired me and I have give name “VEGA” to my 8-inch telescope. Vega is my favourite star.

  11. Rahul Zota

    David, your idea of naming a telescope has inspired me and I have give name “VEGA” to my 8-inch telescope. Vega is my favourite star.

  12. Francois

    Yes, why not give them names? One spends so much time with them and they show you the beauty of the universe! I have named my Meade 10 inch Starfinder Dob “Bili” which translates to ‘a brutish person’. I call my 80mm William Optics refractor “Violetta” because of its purple tube and my 20×60 binocular is named “Rover” – for scanning the skies. I still have to find appropriate names for my 8×40 and 10×50 binoculars. One day my 14 inch GOTO SCT will be called “DreamScope”…

  13. Nathaniel Sailor

    I haven’t thought about naming my scopes but it won’t hurt. But I’ll most likely use names of cars. My 6in. will be called FORD MUSTANG GT and if I get a 12in. it will be called DODGE VIPER!!!

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