If you happened to be in Las Vegas last month, you may have crossed paths with Dr. Alan Bunner. Bunner is the director of NASA's Structure and Evolution of the Universe program, and he was in Vegas to announce the start of a contest to name NASA's newest satellite telescope.

The scope, currently known as the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility, or AXAF for short, is the largest and most powerful X-ray satellite in the world. It will be launched in December, and is the third of what NASA calls the Great Observatories, joining the Hubble Space Telescope and the Compton Gamma- Ray Observatory.

Once in orbit around Earth, the new telescope will give scientists a much better perspective of the universe. Thanks to its advanced instrumentation and high-altitude vantage point, it will bring back spectacular images that are over ten times sharper than any previous X-ray recording.

Scientists have good reasons for wanting to see clearer X-ray images. Cosmic X-rays are produced by violent celestial events, such as when stars explode or galaxies collide. X-rays are also emitted from matter heated to many millions of degrees as it swirls toward a black hole. Being able to study this energy in more detail will shed additional light on the formation of the universe, and the new telescope can make it happen.

According to Dr. Bunner, NASA is accepting names for the scope until the end of June. The name should be based on a person, place, or thing from history, mythology, or fiction.

To entice people to enter the contest, NASA is offering several awards. Bunner says the person who submits the winning name will be flown to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to see the satellite lift off aboard space shuttle Columbia. The trip is valued at $4,000, and covers transportation, lodging, and meals. There will also be ten runner-up prizes, and all entrants will receive a poster.

I don't know about you, but I'm entering NASA's contest, if only for the poster.

Sure I'd like the honor of naming one of the most important scientific research tools of the century. I mean, who wouldn't want to go down in history associated with the instrument that unlocks the secret to black holes and opens a window on cataclysmic events that occurred in the aftermath of the big bang? But right now, all I can think about is that poster.

I imagine that most people who hear about the contest will feel this way too, which is why I like the idea of throwing in a poster. Contest officials probably know that, in our society, we need something we can get our hands on now. They also seem to know that the majority of us want to be able to comprehend the fabric of life without a lot of thinking.

Send in a name, get a poster. That's how we like it.

Perhaps we've stumbled on to something here. For years, NASA has tried, often unsuccessfully, to spark public interest and support for the space program. The problem is that most people just can't seem to grasp the relevance of space exploration, considering its high cost and what they perceive as a low return on investment. Maybe by offering posters, calling cards, and free cable time, NASA can give us a good reason to take an interest in where we've come from and where we're going.

If you have an interest in such things, or if you'd just like a poster, send your entry to: AXAF Contest, AXAF Science Center, Office of Education and Public Outreach, 60 Garden Street, MS 83, Cambridge, MA 02138. Entries must be postmarked no later than June 30. The complete rules, and electronic entry forms, are available on the Internet at http://asc.harvard.edu/contest.html.

Good luck.