Doomsday Telescopes

By Phil Plait | February 27, 2008 9:53 am

I am writing a short article for a kids magazine about Hubble and other astronomical telescopes (I’ll have a link later when it’s published). I needed to find some images for the article, including pictures of the telescopes in question.

I was searching for a picture of some telescopes, and found this one for the European Space Agency’s ISO observatory:

What are we trying to teach kids here? Potential caption: "Astronomers use the ISO observatory to detect and destroy incoming alien fleets."

Of course, the US can’t let Europe do this on their own. Just look at this artist’s illustration of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope!

Red alert!


Comments (41)

  1. Geoff

    Not to worry. We have whales in this century.

  2. Flaminio

    That second one is right out of Space 1999! And you guys are building a Moon base, right? Oh my…

  3. Cindy

    If the artist just depicted a telescope sitting there, people would wonder if it was working!

    By the way, what kids’ magazine?

    And do you have any suggestions for a good book on Astronomy for my intelligent 12 year old nephew who is being brain-washed by my sister-in-law to believe in “Creation”? (Which is rather ironic considering my brother is a petroleum geologist.)

  4. Moose

    Nah, that’s just what they tell everybody. But that’s not an ESO telescope at all. It’s a Torchwood death-ray.

  5. ABR

    Ah. So that’s what REALLY destroyed the windmill a few posts back!

    By the way, is anyone else having lots of trouble accessing the website for the past day or so? It’s crashed my IE7 any number of times and seems to be giving Firefox trouble, too. I got an error about the script slowing down the IE at one point.

  6. RoaldFalcon

    I’m glad we have weapons like the James Webb Space Telescope to protect us from alien fleets. Of course, it’s not as powerful as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory of Death, but we need a range of weapons for a variety of threats.

  7. Pure antiproton, absolutely pure!

  8. Just like parents tell children about god, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Christopher Columbus, etc., we must coat their path to obtaining knowledge with a sugary glaze of fantasy, because reality is all too horrible to digest on its own, apparently.

  9. gopher65

    ABR,, there are a couple ads that have been going around for the past several months that crash Firefox for me. I haven’t experienced any for the past few weeks, but I’m sure they are still out there. The BA site seems to have more of these bad ads than others. The problem is that because I crash the moment that the ad starts to load I don’t know what ad it is, so I can’t ask the BA to remove it!

  10. Danniel B.

    I followed your example, and did a bit of research of that second picture (Of the James Webb Space Telescope). It was fairly simple, I just took the URL of the picture and followed it back tot he core site. What I got is a star trek fan site, and that is apparently a doomsday machine from some episode. How it got associated with the James Webb Space Telescope I don’t know.

    Here is a link to the relevant page:

  11. Um.



    Danniel, are you serious?

  12. Danniel B.

    Furthemore I did a google image search for both “James Webb Space Telescope” and “James Webb Space Telescope artist’s illustration” and did not find this picture there.

  13. Cindy, that’s a tough question. My own book, Bad Astronomy, has a chapter on creationism from an astronomy angle. I don’t know of others though, that would be digestible by a 12-year-old There are a zillion blogs about it, though!

  14. Dee

    “Astronomers use the ISO observatory to detect and destroy incoming alien fleets.”

    so we can all,

    “Live long and prosper”

  15. Trebuchet

    In addition to being equipped with a death ray, the ISO telescope is being illuminated by some source other than the sun! Perhaps the glowing ember of its last target.

    and Danniel, the BA was making a little joke in the second picture. In case you still needed the hint.

  16. Overstroming

    They’re the secret space weapons used to deflect TU93 and protect us from Space Aliens!

    As for Cindy’s question, it’s been so long since I was 12 that I don’t remember what it was like … I’m sure I would have learned a lot from the Bad Astronomy book though – about astronomy and more importantly, about critical thinking, plus the language used isn’t so arcane that a 12 yr old should have too much trouble with it.


  17. Daniel B:

    Um, are you humor-imipaired, maybe?

    Arriving at a star trek fansite should have tipped you off that this was a joke.

  18. SpikeNut

    The second picture: Beware the flying wizard’s hat!

  19. Michael Amato

    That James Webb scope is from the original Atar Trek series. They had to fly a suicide mission into the inside of the opening and blow it up from within. actially it was a good episode.

  20. Acutally, “they” didn’t fly a starship inside the doomsday machine, it was a solo flight by Commodore Decker, who was the father of the Captain Decker of the Enterprise in the first Star Trek movie.

    Trivia buffs rejoice!

  21. Pat

    I’m not meaning to speak in Phil’s stead, but as far as generally accessible books about science; I found Larry Gonick to be eminently accessible. Even had his Cartoon Guide to Genetics as an assigned book in one of my college courses.

    His History of the Universe series is pretty fun – book 1 here ==>

  22. oopsie…actually, not acutally.

  23. Loaf Of Bread

    Yes, I got a good chuckle from the picture of the “James Web Telescope”.

    The picture, for the benefit of the humor impaired, is from a Star Trek episode whose title was, IIRC, “The Doomsday Machine”. What is was, in the episode, was a weapon manufactured by a presumable now dead civilization that went around cutting up planets and using the debris for fuel. As another poster pointed out, Commodore Decker flew what was left of the USS Constellation into the maw of the device and detonated it inside. It was a very good episode.

  24. TheManTheyCallJayne

    Here’s a shot of Spitzer, Hubble, and Chandra kicking serious alien butt:

    From the Irrelevant Astronomy vodcast episode “Spaceship Spitzer” :)

  25. Wow, I thought I was the only one who noticed this resemblance. :-) That’s a great YouTube vid; I sent it on to some friends at Spitzer.

  26. roddg

    Gaa! People don’t know there trek!

    Commodore Decker flew a shuttlecraft into the maw. Kirk piloted Decker’s damaged starship in but beamed out just in time.

    The ISO observatory looks cool. When is it launched?

  27. moist rub writes:

    [[Just like parents tell children about god, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Christopher Columbus, etc., we must coat their path to obtaining knowledge with a sugary glaze of fantasy, because reality is all too horrible to digest on its own, apparently.]]

    Check out #3:

  28. Stanza

    Star trek sound track moment:

    duuuh-dunt, duuuh-dunt, duuuh-dunt, DAA-DA!
    duuuh-dunt, duuuh-dunt, duuuh-dunt, DAA-DA!

    Come on, sing along, you know the words…

  29. Tod

    In the ESA artist’s conception, I just have to ask a couple of questions:

    1. What function is performed by all that external hardware that winds and twists all over the surface like a bunch of rotting ivy? Kudzu in space?

    2. My first thought on seeing all those coherent light rays was that they were being emitted by the scope, and certainly not being gathered as incoming light. Incoming light will be arriving from all different directions, no? Maybe I’m too conditioned by reading all those Superman comics in the 50s and seeing rays being emitted by his eyes.

    3. [Serious question] Why is the aperture angled? Is there some physical reason it’s not perpendicular to the axis of the tube?

    4. [another serious question] Why is there a tube in the first place? Is it to direct light from a narrow source onto the objective? It seems like so much extra mass unless it’s totally necessary.

    Enlightening responses welcome!

  30. JB of Brisbane

    I nearly LOL’d when I saw the Doomsday Machine above. Yes, it was from Star Trek, the episode was written by Norman Spinrad, directed by Theodore Sturgeon (I think) and guest starred William Windom as Commodore Matt Decker (later remembered as Dr Seth Hazlett from Murder She Wrote). The episode was pretty much a case of “Moby Dick meets The Caine Mutiny in Interstellar Space”.

  31. Ken

    I wonder how you can portray the direction of light without then raising new questions in the observer’s mind about angles and whatnot. Tod’s post made me see that its possible, but it might still be difficult to avoid having the thing look like a flashlight or something.

  32. Flaminio: Space 1999!?!? You’re kidding, right?
    roddg: You beat me to the punch. I was just about to correct all the blasphemers about who flew which ship into the machine when I saw your comment. Bless you.

  33. Blu-Ray-Ven

    cindy, introduce your nephew to the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and Pale Blue Dot

  34. Kyle

    Did you get the idea for this article from that video with Michelle Thaller where the NASA Space Telescopes do the Babylon 5 homage in the opening credits?

  35. SchizotypalEmma

    @Cindy: Also not meaning to speak in Phil’s stead, I read Sagan’s Cosmos around that age, though I recently lent it to a 14 year old who found it too dense as a beginner. There are tons of great general astronomy books in the science part of Barnes and Nobles, so why not take him on a trip with you to a bookstore and find something he likes?

  36. roddg says: “Commodore Decker flew a shuttle-craft into the maw. Kirk piloted Decker’s damaged starship in but beamed out just in time.”

    Thank you for posting this and saving me the trouble!

    This episode is also the closest Kirk ever came to saying “Beam me up, Scotty.” I believe his line was, “Scotty, beam me aboard” as the detonation clock was ticking.

    – Jack

    PS – Decker’s ship was the “Constellation” (it’s namesake can still be found floating in Baltimore harbor), and Decker was played by William Windom. He also played James Thurber in the vastly underrated comedy “My World, and Welcome to It!” That sort of ruined for me any credibility he might have had as a starship captain.

  37. Jeff Fite

    OKay, here we go…

    @Tod: the tube and the angled aperture is to shield the mirror and internal structure from stray light. The part of the aperture that sticks forward a little will be oriented to be on the same side of the spacecraft as the sun, as a shield. Since the designers want to save weight, they cut off the other three sides of the aperture. My little telescope on Earth has a flat front end so I won’t think I’ve been cheated out of some telescope tube–and because I don’t have to pay a bajillion dollars a kilogram to lift it into orbit.

    @Cindy: YOU should buy and read Sagan’s book, “The Demon-Haunted World: science as a candle in the darkness.” It is by far the best primer on skeptical thought, ever. Then, if you think your nephew can handle it, give it to him. (Assuming his parents will let it into the house, that is. They do retain the right to be his parents.) Otherwise, you can just use what you learn from it when you get your chance to exercise your privilege to be his aunt.

    @All you trekkers: if you liked “The Doomsday Machine” you should really surf over to “Star Trek: The New Voyages” and check out their episode, “In Harm’s Way.” The doomsday machines are back, and badder than ever.

    [In case you haven’t heard, there are groups on the net that that are making new Star Trek episodes. They are highly variable in setting, length, and quality, but the folks over at ST:TNV are producing near-professional, hour-length episodes set in the original series era. Lots of original cast and crew have donated their talents to the episodes, and there are professional CGI schools that do all the CG work, free, as student projects. These episodes are so good that Paramount has granted the producers a limited license to use the Star Trek characters and properties–as long as there is NO commercial gain from the projects. Now, THAT’s an endorsement!]

  38. pfc

    ROTFL/James Webb. I don’t consider myself a Trek nerd (despite devouring all the TOS episodes at the age of 10, I found other things to interest me in subsequent years.). But that was one of my favorite episodes, fondly remembered as the “giant space carrot of death.”

    Jeff: TNV sounds neat. Maybe I’ll take a look, for old times’ sake.

  39. Stephen

    Cindy: my interest in astronomy was kindled at about age 10 by reading a couple of books by Patrick Moore, who has written a great deal on astronomy. They weren’t specifically aimed at children but were written in a sufficiently straightforward style for me to have no difficulty following them. You might like to have a look at some of his work.

    As for the second photo above: I’ve never been a Star Trek fan at all, and I have to admit I don’t really understand what grown men see in it. However as a teenager I did see the first series when it was originally broadcast in the UK (what’s that – 35+ years ago?). I was highly taken aback that I recognised the second photo immediately. It really made me wonder to what extent my brain has become a receptacle for gigantic quantities of useless information over the decades.

  40. faramarz

    what is dooms day?
    and who is V?


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