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.
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.