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Can You Really Name A Star?

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Channel: BrainStuff - HowStuffWorks
Categories: Astronomy   |   Science  
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Since the dawn of recorded history humankind has tried to classify and study the stars. It’s a continuing mission, and astronomers are finding new stars all the time. But how do they get their names?

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Hey BrainStuff, it’s Lauren. Let’s take a look at the night sky. If you’re lucky enough to have a clear view of the heavens, then you’ll see something like this: a panoply of beautiful stars twinkling away in a breathtaking assortment of colors and sizes. A few have ancient names- like Vega, or Aldebran.

But who decides what to call them? Can you name a star yourself?

Well, yes. And no. See, there’s a difference between a star’s popular name and its scientific designation. For example, Vega is the popular name of a star, but its Bayer designation is Alpha Lyr.

There are loads of groups claiming to name stars, but they are by no means created equal. You know those companies that offer to let you name a star after a loved one (or yourself, if you’re, you know, that sort of person)? Well, while it might not be fair to call them scams, it is fair to say that their names are not in any way legally binding. Nor are they, again, in any way, recognized by the astronomical community.

While these companies maintain their own databases of star names, astronomers aren’t consulting them, nor are they using these names in their work.

Today, the only group that can really name a star is the International Astronomical Union, or IAU. Since its founding in 1919, the IAU has been the ultimate authority on the names and designations of stars, along with other astronomical objects.

Star names typically come about in three ways: First, they can be inherited from an ancient language, like Greek, Latin or Arabic.

Second, they might be named after an influential astronomer, such as Barnard’s star, a red dwarf named after its discoverer.

Most stars aren’t that lucky. Instead of a proper name, they get a designation in a catalog. This means that, legally speaking, the majority of the stars above us are just known by strings of letters and numbers. You can read about 945 million of them in databases like the Guide Star Catalog or the Gliese catalog of nearby stars.

While these long strings of numbers and letters might not sound particularly romantic, they’re necessary. Think of it more like an address rather than a name. With hundreds of millions of known stars, astronomers need some way to find the star again in the course of their work. The designations show the position of a star in the heavens.

So, with all this in mind, you might wonder if cozying up to the IAU is a way to get a legit star named after you. It turns out a lot of other people have had the same idea.

Eventually, the IAU must have gotten sick of it, because they posted a statement about it on their website. In their statement, they disavow any connection to groups “selling” star-naming rights.

They also warn readers not to buy any extraterrestrial real estate – you know, lunar suburbs, a loft on Europa and so on. Which apparently people do try to buy now and then.

But there’s good news! While you can’t buy a star’s name, you can make suggestions, and even launch public naming campaigns. In 2013 the IAU released some guidelines in a piece called “Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites”. Check it out for some handy tips.

For example, a proposed name has to be 16 letters or less, preferably one word, and non-offensive. (So there go half of my ideas.)

They strongly discourage people from suggesting the name of a beloved pet, or a commercial product. That makes sense, you know? The song “twinkle twinkle, little Air Jordans” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.


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