An Alphabet Soup of Absurd Astronomy Acronyms

Astronomy loves acronyms. Some of them are evocative, charming, and memorable. Others are more laboured in their execution. This is an ode unusual acronyms, from the cleverly complex to the eye-rolling fail.

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Acronyms are prevalent when talking about astronomy and space science — in the past few months I've covered JPL, JAXA, OCO2, ISEE-3, SDO, IRIS, DSN, GRBs and UXOs, a whole host of CubeSats, DTMs, IRNSS-1B, GPM, DOVES, MRO, LADEE, SPHERES, and far, far too many other jumbles of letters to easily remember. For the most part, they make handy tags for finding related articles later, but aren't particularly memorable or meaningful to anyone outside the field.


I've always had a soft spot for the main competing theories for dark matter: MAssive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs) and Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs). They thematically work, they have a bit of sass, and despite not being a practicing astrophysicist, I remember exactly what they stand for every time the topic comes up. Best of all, I remember them as a linked set of concepts, a pair of theories related to the same mysterious phenomena. As far as acronyms go, that's pretty much a perfect set of features.

Meanwhile, a few of the amazing instruments selected for the 2020 Mars rover have overly-laboured acronym-names, or, stranger still, awkward acronym-names that don't actually match up with the extended phrases. All my love to MOXIE, but it's never a good sign when your acronym contains a nested acronym. Then again, I once earnestly worked on BOOST, a component of BEAST as part of an alliterative investigation of the CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background), so I can't tease too hard.

Astronomer and computer engineer Glen Petitpas at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has been collecting the other sort of acronyms. You know the ones, where the acronym clearly came first and the name was awkwardly forced around it to fit, or are so thematically off-base that you don't even know how scientists can write serious academic papers involving them without snickering. Here's a few of my so-bad-they're-good favourites:

  • 5MUSES: 5 MegaJansky Unbiased Spitzer Extragalactic Survey is an instrument observing program for the Spitzer Space Telescope that picks up light somewhere between nearby spiral galaxies and Ultra Luminous Infrared Galaxies (ULIRGs, for a bonus acronym). A MegaJansky (MJy) is a flux unit to measure spectral flux density or spectral irradiance equivalent to 10–20 kg s–2.
  • AMBER: Astronomical MultiBEam Recombiner is an instrument on the Very Large Telescope Interferometer used to blend beams from several telescopes into one signal. It's also a cheater of an acronym for shamelessly plucks letters from the middle of words. Then again, at least it isn't BaR-SPOrt (BAlloon-borne Radiometers for Sky Polarisation ObseRvaTions), FaNTOmM (Fabry-perot of New Technology for the Observatoire du mont Megantic), or GRAPE (GRAvity PipE).
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CANGAROO iii in the Autralian outback, and a kangaroo in New South Wales. Image credits CANGAROO, snowmanradio

  • CANGAROO: Collaboration between Australian and Nippon for a Gamma Ray Observatory in the Outback, an international collaboration to look for gamma ray bursts that is just too cute for words. Quite a few other projects jump on the animal bandwagon, like BIGRAT (BIcentennial Gamma RAy Telescope), BiSON (Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network), CAT (Cosmic Anisotropy Telescope), COBRA (Cadmium-zinc-telluride O-neutrino double-Beta Research Apparatus), and many others, including the myserious 25BEARS, some instrument on ASTE that someone has to interpret for me. (Pretty please?)
  • FASTSOUND: FMOS Ankoku Shindou Tansa Subaru Observation Understanding Nature of Dark energy may be the definition of trying to hard with multilingual nested acronyms. FMOS is Fiber Multi-Object Spectrograph, while Ankoku Shindou Tansa translates from Japanese as Dark Oscillation Survey. It's a cosmology research program looking at galaxy redshift using the FMOS instrument.
  • ARISTOTELES: Applications and Research Involving Space Technologies Observing the Earth's field from Low Earth orbiting Satellite is not so much a name, as an entire sentence packed into a single word, cherry-picking whichever lead-letters fit the theme. It was supposed to be an ESA (European Space Agency) satellite to investigate gravitational and magnetic fields, but was cancelled before ever getting a chance, possibly because snickering about the overly-complicated acro-name was getting too embarrassing.
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MAGIC, two imaging atmospheric Cherenkov telescopes in the Canary Islands. Image credit: The MAGIC group

  • Magic of course has its place in astrophysics, starting with MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes) detects particle showers from gamma rays. DAZLE (Dark Ages Z Lyman-alpha Explorer) adds some serious pizazz to any astro-outing, as well as a near infrared narrowband differential imager to detect redshift. The most classic of mages is MERLIN (Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network), which was an array of radio telescopes, but has since been upgraded to e-MERLIN. Another iconic wizard is GANDALF (Gas and Absorption Line Fitting) algorithm to simultaneously fit emission and absorption lines, seperating the relative contribution of stars, nebula, and galaxies. Of course astronomy has a dark side, so his foe SAURON (Spectroscopic Areal Unit for Research on Optical Nebulae) is also in play, looking at elliptical and lenticular galaxies.
  • From these examples, you may be getting the feeling that acronyms scan be a method to sneak slang, insults, and other not-so-dignified declarations into formal settings. You'd be right. A few notable examples are FATBOY (Florida Analysis Tool Born of Yearning for high-quality scientific data), PINTofALE (Package for the INTeractive analysis of Line Emission), SHIT (Super Huge Interferometric Telescope), and for all the researchers who came up with these clever, clever acronyms, WISEASS (Weizmann Institute of Science Experimental Astrophysics Spectroscopy System)

But by far my favourite of every astronomy acronym I've encountered is:

  • GADZOOKS! Gadolinium Antineutrino Detector Zealously Outperforming Old Kamiokande, Super! is a proposed/under-construction dedicated test facility near the Kamioka mine and Super Kamiokande detector. Yes, it has an exclamation point. Yes, I love the science team even more just for that enthusiasm.

Do you have any favourite outrageous acronyms? Have you worked on projects with names so absurd it's hard to take the

Tip via DarkSapiens and JJ Eldridge.


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I work on documents where I have to write out the acronyms, so stand back:

MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging) —high five for that one]

NPP (NPOESS [National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System] Preparatory Project)—yes, nested acronyms

C3PO (Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office)—more high fives

OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer)—sounds cool as an acronym, and confusing written out