Friday, November 25, 2016

The Truth About Star Names

This is the highlight of the holiday shopping season for bargain shoppers. Deals and steals await those willing to sacrifice sleep on Friday and click at lightning speed on Monday. Sometimes the quest for the perfect gift can be as difficult as searching for new planets among the stars. If you’re looking to the heavens for gift ideas this season though, keep in mind that stars aren’t really available for purchase. Neither are their naming rights.

As a “unique” gift option, several companies offer people the chance to buy or name a star after a loved one—for the low price of $19.99 (give or take). In most cases, the purchase comes with the name of your choice given to a star and added to something like the National Star Registry, a certificate, and a star chart detailing the star’s location in the sky.

The red supergiant Betelgeuse (top left) in the constellation Orion.
Image Credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo, October 2010.

Like a too-good-to-be-true black Friday ad, it’s important to read the fine print on these offers. Stars and their names are NOT for sale. The registry your name is added to is NOT an official record of star names. The name won’t appear in research papers or astronomical star catalogs—just on the paperwork you receive and maybe in the company’s database. Many of the stars people “name” are too faint to see without a telescope and are extremely difficult to pinpoint. Many can’t even be seen from the hemisphere in which they are purchased.

In fact, until late 2015 the number of stars with official names was exactly zero. Several of the brightest stars have commonly used names, at least within a particular culture, but many names and spellings differ between cultures. For cataloging purposes stars are given designations that are a combination of letters and numbers. However, some stars have different designations in different catalogs.

For example, the star I learned as “Betelgeuse” is also known variously as Alpha Orionis, HR 2061, BD +7 1055, HD 39801, SAO 113271, PPM 149643, as well as various spellings of Betelgeuse. That can make for a bit of a mess, as you might imagine. But things are changing. As of yesterday, the star’s official name and spelling is “Betelgeuse,” and its designation is “HR 2061.”

The international authority on classifying and naming astronomical objects, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), had approved just 18 star names as of last week. This week that number grew to 227 when 209 new star names, including Betelgeuse. were formally approved by the IAU’s newly established Working Group on Star Names.

Members of the Working Group are digging into worldwide astronomical history and culture in order to standardize traditional star names. They also plan to outline a path for IAU members to propose names for stars and other astronomical objects.

This effort has nothing to do with the commercial side of naming stars, a practice that the IAU “disassociates itself entirely from.” Instead, it’s motivated by efforts to involve the international astronomy community in naming exoplanets and the stars they orbit around, and to make sure that astronomical heritage is preserved.

If you’ve bought or been given a star, feel free to see whether your name is on the list, or just trust me that it’s not. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the beauty and significance of naming a star for a loved one. In fact, I get a kick out of the idea. If you’re a bargain shopper though, I encourage you to take advantage of NASA’s image gallery and create your own certificates. You might even get more creative than existing companies…

• Instead of a star, name a black hole after the sullen teenager on your list.
• Instead of a star, name a binary system after your overly attached in-laws.
• Instead of a star, name a blazar after your effervescent cousin.

The possibilities are endless. Share your ideas with us in the comments!

Kendra Redmond

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