The naming of names

By Phil Plait | October 15, 2011 7:17 am

If you don’t like the way NASA and astronomers name their missions, then now’s your chance.

NASA is asking students to help them name the twin GRAIL satellites, currently on their way to the Moon. They want input from K-12 students, and they’re hoping this helps motivate kids to be interested in space. They don’t have suggestions, but I might urge you to think of either famous twins, of course, or maybe two people who helped explore the Moon, partners in some way (married couples, or two people who worked closely together). I don’t think they’ll allow the names of people still alive (so Neil and Buzz are out, unfortunately), but I’m guessing someone will come up with something good.

The deadline for that is November 11.

Not only that, but astronomers want to rename the Very Large Array, a collection of 27 separate 25-meter radio telescopes observing the skies from New Mexico. The array has been operational for decades, but has undergone recent extensive renovations, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory thinks it’s appropriate to rename the array in honor of this.

If you’ve seen the movie "Contact" then you’ve seen the VLA; it’s where The Signal is first heard, the scene where Ellie is listening in using headphones. So I went to the Name The Array webpage and, deciding to keep the same initials, entered "Vega Loves Arroway". You may feel free to submit something better.

The deadline for renaming the VLA is midnight Eastern (US) time December 1.


Related posts:

GRAIL on its way to the Moon!
My readers are smart
Black hole erupts in nearby galaxy
My BA review of the movie "Contact"

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Humor, NASA

Comments (65)

  1. Utakata

    I thought Graham Chapman was rather brilliant. :)

  2. Chris

    Name it after Phil Plait!

  3. Statler and Waldorf for the GRAIL Spacecraft!

  4. Ryan

    The GRAIL satellites should be named Galahad and Perceval, after the two knights who successfully achieved the Grail in the legends.

  5. Josh

    Arthur and Lancelot

    Monty and Python

  6. Gary

    Isaac and Robert — after two early luminaries of SciFi

  7. Ganzyman

    Castor & Pollux

  8. Bugeyes8

    I, for one, don’t want them to change the name of the Very Large Array. We have a running joke about how scientists name things and without that I’ll only have the VLT.

  9. Arthur & Guinevere for GRAIL & for the Very Large Array .. hmm .. Veritas Laborare Astronomia (True Work Astronomy) keeps the initials for a grander Latin expression. Maybe?

    Incidentally, a quick bit of wiki-research turned up this derivation of the name Arthur :

    An alternative theory, which has gained only limited acceptance among professional scholars, derives the name Arthur from Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes, near Ursa Major or the Great Bear. Classical Latin Arcturus would also have become Art(h)ur when borrowed into Welsh, and its brightness and position in the sky led people to regard it as the “guardian of the bear” (which is the meaning of the name in Ancient Greek) and the “leader” of the other stars in Boötes.

    Source : King Arthur wiki-page linked to my name here.

    Which is an apt astronomical link I never knew till now. (Found because I can never recall how to spell ‘Guinevere’ so checking can work out serendipity~wise! 😉 )

    I don’t think they’ll allow the names of people still alive (so Neil and Buzz are out, unfortunately)

    Well, fortunately for them I guess! 😉

    However, Alan Shephard (Apollo 14 astronaut & first American in space) and Wally Schirra (first person to fly in space thrice & only person to fly Mercury-Gemini & Apollo missions) *are* eligiable. We could do worse than use their names for the GRAIL twins. Or maybe Von & Braun although the latter might be considered more product placement than rocketry pioneer honouring! VonBraun & Korolov perhaps?

    PS. Fry & Leela? After all they’ll be the last ones to fly in the LEM according to our glimpse of the Futurama awaiting us. 😉

  10. Mercurywoodrose

    For the VLA: The Mind-Bogglingly Big Array. Douglas Adams’ fictional encyclopedia “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” has an introduction which says “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” We know there will be write in campaigns, this is my best shot.

  11. RCSI

    Chell and Wheatley

    Couldn’t help bringing them up.

  12. So sad.

    Julius and Vincent (Benedict)

  13. They want input from K-12 students

    Who / what are K12 students btw?

    @. Bugeyes8 :

    I, for one, don’t want them to change the name of the Very Large Array. We have a running joke about how scientists name things and without that I’ll only have the VLT

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard / read of plans for the OWL – Overwhelmingly Large Telescope somewhere! 😉

    (Dang-nabbitt! A wiki-check finds it – click on my name for link – but seems its been cancelled. Oh well, maybe the OWL will be re-instated when the economy eventually improves. One day?)

  14. Savvas

    For the VLA I proposed the name:
    The Argus Array

    named after the ancient Greek myth of Argus, the giant with the 100 eyes

    but also the famous Argus Array from the Star Trek: TNG

    I think that in either case the name is appropriate :)

  15. OtherRob

    @MTU, #13:

    Who / what are K12 students btw?

    K-12 means means students Kindergarten through 12th grade, the “standard” schooling kids in the U.S. go through before college/university.

  16. How about Plait and Wiseman….Which one’s the evil twin?

  17. Tara Li

    For the VLA – The Sagan/Drake Array. (Dr. Carl Sagan & Dr. Frank Drake)

    For the GRAIL pair – lots of good suggestions, but … maybe Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Or Padma & Parvarti? Dezi & Lucy? (Dr. Richard) Feynman and (Dr. Robert) Forward?

  18. The Mutt

    New Amazing Massively Big Large Array or NAMBLA.

  19. Autumn

    I had the pleasure of driving the family through the VLA on our way to Arizona this past Summer. It was awesome, but much more spread out than the representations I’ve seen. I know the individual ‘scopes can move on tracks, but is the configuration in Contact possible, or a photoshop job?

  20. Torbjorn Larsson, OM

    Oh, nice!


    – Bi & Curious. (For sexually challenged US people.)
    – Who’s on & First. (For comically challenged US people.)
    – Hi & Ho. (For pirately challenged US people.)

    [I like “Tweedledee and Tweedledum”. Hope it sticks!]


    – Dish’em Out, Homer! (The “D’OH!” array; for obviously challenged US people.)

  21. John

    Bubble and squeak
    Ham & eggs
    Wilbur and Orville
    Pitch & Yaw
    Over and out
    Mohammed and Jesus
    Tweety and Sylvester
    Mutt & Jeff
    Pie & Sky
    Crash & Burn (well, maybe not)
    DaVinci and Michelangelo
    Edison & Tesla
    Here and Now

    I could do this all day

    Cat & Mouse
    Tweedle dee and tweedle dum
    Hari & Kari
    David and Goliath
    Godzilla and Mothra
    Ben and Jerry
    Batman and Robin

  22. VLA has just got to be the Sagan Observatory, in full: Carl Sagan Very Large Array.

  23. Orlando

    I’ll stick to “Von Braun” & “Korolev” for GRAIL and Carl Sagan Very Large Array for VLA. Vega Loves Arroway is my second option, though.

  24. Joseph G

    All these British names I’ve never heard of. I do rather like the Monty Python suggestion, though.

    @18 Torbjorn Larsson: I like your style. How about Simon and Garfunkel?
    Or perhaps Beavis and Butthead? No, I’d be pissed if I were a NASA tech or scientist and I got put in charge of “Butthead”.
    Kate and Ashley? 😛

  25. Reluka

    I love your ‘twin’ suggestion. Perfect way to memorialize the Python.

  26. Pete Jackson

    @17Autumn: To see the VLA in its most compact, or “D”, configuration, go to:

  27. Chris

    @18 Mutt
    NAMBLA is already taken (North American Marlon Brando Look-Alikes)

  28. Kevin

    VLA has to be named after Sagan somehow. Not sure of the exact wording, but it needs to happen.

  29. MadScientist

    Each could be named ‘Eric’, or perhaps one can be ‘Graham’ and the other ‘Eric’ – that way no one will know which Graham or Eric. Or to avoid any confusion we can call ’em all Bruce.

    With the VLA, why don’t we name *all* the telescopes? There are Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen …

  30. Chief

    Wow. How young the audience is.

    I propose Laurel and Hardy for the Grail mission. They continue to react towards each others push and pull but despite the friction, continue to enjoy each others company.

  31. Stargazer

    Dr Who & Rose Tyler

  32. ST

    Oh my God Phil. I was trying to think up a name, but then I read your suggestion and fell in love with it. Vega Loves Arroway for the win.

  33. SRQHivemind

    For the GRAIL probes:
    Verne & Wells

    For the nuVLA:
    The Carl Sagan Radio Observatory (CSRO for the initialism inclined)

  34. rtenkate

    I went with Carl sagan Observatory for Non-Terrestrial Alien CommunicaTion

    Contact was my favorite book as a teenager. I must have read it a dozen times….

  35. Chris Winter

    #27: Well done! (LOL)

  36. Chris Winter

    I like the idea of memorializing Carl Sagan and/or Frank Drake via the VLA. But maybe there are others more worthy to have their names on a radio astronomy facility. Karl Jansky? Jocelyn Bell Burnell? Grote Reber? Barney Oliver? Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson?

    On second thought, Jocelyn Bell Burnell is alive (as are Jill Tarter, Penzias & Wilson), so may not be eligible.

  37. Matt

    It’s called GRAIL, and you’re asking nerds to name it? Clearly they’re going to be called Monty and Python.

  38. Yep, Carl Sagan Radio Observatory it is for the EVLA!
    Yes, it’s EVLA. Expanded Very Large Array. Still needs a nomenclature upgrade!

    CSRO does have other acronyms, though:
    Canadian Spinal Research Organization
    Center for Software Reuse Operations
    Combat Systems Readiness Officer
    Cryogenic Sapphire Resonator Oscillator
    Consolidated Standing Route Order
    Contingency Standing Route Order
    Contract Service Rework Order
    Chinese Silkroad Online (web forum)

    So let’s all go vote for Dr. Sagan!

    BTW, Chris, the Jansky Laboratory at NRAO’s Green Bank Observatory kinda has him covered. Grote Reber’s original dish antenna sits outside the Green Bank Observatory’s Visitor’s Center, but that’s a good suggestion. Dr. Drake is on the “alive & well” list too.

  39. Keith

    I voted for the Carl E. Sagan Very Large Array.

    Drake was my second choice, but to name it after Sagan would be SOOOOOO fitting.

  40. ScottB
  41. Luke Forrester

    Calvin and Hobbes

  42. Monkey

    @38 “Ren and Stimpy”

    Technically, we would have to enter into a conversation on whether they are dead/alive in order to make them eligible.


    I say alive… my heart at least!

  43. Monkey

    I like the idea of not using twins, but using one persons name – first/last. The Carl Probe…The Sagan Probe. Satellite. Rover. Whatchamacallit.

    (Ps – I vote for keeping the Very Large Array named that way. Me just likes it…)

  44. VinceRN

    Bummer I got to this so late. ‘Perceval and Galahad’ and ‘Robert and Isaac’s both occurred to me, as well as probably many others.

  45. scgvlmike

    Too bad I’m not in the right age range, but I do have a suggestion: Chaffee and White for the satellites, Grissom for the rocket that boosted them.

  46. JB of Brisbane

    Charlie Brown and Snoopy has already been done, hasn’t it?

  47. Luke Forrester


    Yeah, Apollo 10.

  48. Ann

    Grail satellites – How about the Olson Twins. Or not.

  49. How about “Crazy” and “Horse”.

  50. Davivid

    Coyote & Roadrunner. One forever chasing but never catching the other.

  51. Autumn

    @Pete Jackson,
    Thanks. When I drove through we could only see six or so ‘scopes at one time. Must have been darn close to A formation.
    For the grail satellites, Biggus and Dickus?

  52. Cindy

    Ok, now I know what to assign my physics classes for extra credit.

  53. @15. OtherRob : Thanks. :-)

    I’ll second the Carl Sagan Array suggestion for the VLA too. :-)

    @38. Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum :

    So let’s all go vote for Dr. Sagan! BTW, Chris, the Jansky Laboratory at NRAO’s Green Bank Observatory kinda has him covered.

    I guess Sagan’s name is already honoured by the Pathfinder landing site in his honour in 1997 (wiki-page source linked to my name) but still think renaming the VLA for him would be apt.

  54. Douglas

    Call ’em both Steve.

  55. Mephane

    @11, RCSI:

    I immediately had similar thoughts, although I’d rather go with the pair “Atlas” and “P-Body”, because they truely are designed to operate in cooperation, heh.

  56. The Lonely Sand Person

    For the VLA, I suggested lunar astronomer Frank W. Very, making it the Very Very Large Array. 😀

  57. Gary

    Sheldon and Leonard?

  58. lunchstealer

    @ John – You missed “Truth” and “Beauty” (to be used interchangeably with “Top” and “Bottom”)

  59. The Bobs

    Those NASA people who had this idea to come up with a new name must be communists. A real American would sell the name to the highest bidder. I’m going with the “Sony/Google extreme X array.”

  60. John Sandlin

    I was thinking Zoot and Dingo.

  61. Sparky

    How about Penn and Teller?

  62. Nefrubyr

    Bedford & Cavor.

  63. BillBinIch

    Alice & Ralph: “to the moon Alice”
    Ellie’s Ears

  64. Karen Bergstrom

    Gemini, a famous constellation is named for the twins Castor and Pollux — a good names for a twin system. Name one Castor and the other Pollux.

  65. jrpowell

    Stewart & Colbert


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