Royal Greenwich observatory: The naming of Stars

From: sci.astro, Astronomy Frequently Asked Questions

Subject G.08:

How are stars named? Can I name/buy one?

Author: Kevin D. Conod

Official names for celestial objects are assigned by the International Astronomical Union. Procedures vary depending on the type of object. Often there is a system for assigning temporary designations as soon as possible after an object is discovered and later on a permanent name.

Some commercial companies purport to allow you to name a star. Typically they send you a nice certificate and a piece of a star atlas showing "your" star. The following statement on star naming was approved by the IPS Council June 30, 1988.

The International Planetarium Society's Guidelines on Star Naming


The star names recognized and used by scientists are those that have been published by astronomers at credible scientific institutions. The International Astronomical Union, the worldwide federation of astronomical societies, accepts and uses _only_ those names. Such names are never sold.

Private groups in business to make money may claim to "name a star for you or a loved one, providing the perfect gift for many occasions." One organization offers to register that name in a Geneva, Switzerland, vault and to place that name in their beautiful copyrighted catalog. However official-sounding this procedure may seem, the name and the catalog are not recognized or used by any scientific institution. Further, the official-looking star charts that commonly accompany a "purchased star name" are the Becvar charts excerpted from the _Atlas Coeli 1950.0_. [Other star atlases such as _Atlas Borealis_ may be used instead.] While these are legitimate charts, published by Sky Publishing Corporation, they have been modified by the private "star name" business unofficially. Unfortunately, there are instances of news media describing the purchase of a star name, apparently not realizing that they are promoting a money-making business only and not science. Advertisements and media promotion both seem to increase during holiday periods.

Planetariums and museums occasionally "sell" stars as a way to raise funds for their non-profit institutions. Normally these institutions are extremely careful to explain that they are not officially naming stars and that the "naming" done for a donation is for amusement only.


Bright stars from first to third magnitude have proper names that have been in use for hundreds of years. Most of these names are Arabic. Examples are Betelgeuse, the bright orange star in the constellation Orion, and Dubhe, the second-magnitude star at the edge of the Big Dipper's cup (Ursa Major). A few proper star names are not Arabic. One is Polaris, the second-magnitude star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). Polaris also carries the popular name, the North Star.

A second system for naming bright stars was introduced in 1603 by J. Bayer of Bavaria. In his constellation atlas, Bayer assigned successive letters of the Greek alphabet to the brighter stars of each constellation. Each Bayer designation is the Greek letter with the genitive form of the constellation name. Thus Polaris is Alpha Ursae Minoris. Occasionally Bayer switched brightness order for serial order in assigning Greek letters. An example of this is Dubhe as Alpha Ursae Majoris, with each star along the Big Dipper from the cup to handle having the next Greek letter.

Faint stars are designated in different ways in catalogs prepared and used by astronomers. One is the _Bonner Durchmusterung_, compiled at Bonn Observatory starting in 1837. A third of a million stars to a faintness of ninth magnitude are listed by "BD numbers." The _Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) Catalog_, _The Yale Star Catalog_, and _The Henry Draper Catalog_ published by Harvard College Observatory all are widely used by astronomers. The Supernova of 1987 (Supernova 1987A), one of the major astronomical events of this century, was identified with the star named SK -69 202 in the very specialized catalog, the _Deep Objective Prism Survey of the Large Magellanic Cloud_, published by the Warner and Swasey Observatory.

These procedures and catalogs accepted by the International Astronomical Union are the only means by which stars receive long-lasting names. Be aware that no one can buy immortality for anyone in the form of a star name.

Office of Public Relations
University of Colorado-Boulder

December 19, 1997


For those contemplating giving a loved one the ultimate Christmas gift -- having a star named after him or her -- think twice, says University of Colorado at Boulder astronomy Professor Ted Snow.

Snow, a professor in the astrophysical and planetary sciences department, said several private companies are offering the public a chance to pick a star and have it named after themselves, a friend or relative for fees ranging from $35 to $100. Some companies advertise that the star with the name the buyer has chosen will be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, implying that it will be protected from being named for anyone else, he said.

But most of the 10,000 "bright" stars -- those that can be viewed from Earth with the naked eye -- already have names used by astronomers that are based on agreements made by an organization of professional astronomers called the International Astronomical Union, said Snow. And although these are viewed as conventional references rather than legally binding names, they are the closest thing to official names the stars will ever have. "Anyone can declare that a particular star is named for himself or herself, but this does not mean that anyone else will ever use that name or that the name is somehow reserved," said Snow. There is no way the U.S. Copyright Office can protect, reserve or register the names of stars, he said.

"That is the crux of the scam being perpetrated by some of these star- naming companies, because they imply otherwise," said Snow. "They really offer nothing more than a very expensive certificate that a person could make himself or herself with just as much validity."

Such companies create false impressions that the star names have some kind of official status, when in fact the only place the stars will even be listed is in a book that will be published by the company. "This book will be offered for sale, prying even more money out of those who have already paid a substantial sum to have stars named for themselves," he said.

One particular company claims to have already registered "hundreds of thousands of stars," said Snow. If that is the case, the vast majority of stars registered are too dim to be seen with the naked eye, since less than 10,000 stars are visible from the Northern Hemisphere.

"Therefore most of their customers cannot point out their actual stars in the sky, because they can't be seen without a substantial telescope," he said. "But how appealing would it be if the ads said you could name a star for yourself, but that unfortunately it was too faint for anyone to ever see?"

In itself, the practice is probably not illegal, said Snow. "But it is highly deceptive, and it is likely that many people have spent money based on false assumptions fostered by deliberately incomplete information." The former director of CU's Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy, Snow is a science team member on the $25 million Cosmic Origins Spectrometer that is being designed and built jointly by CU-Boulder and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder for installation on Hubble in 2002. He also is a science team member on the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, an orbiting telescope that will carry a $9 million CU-Boulder instrument into space in 1998. Snow and CASA Research Associate Kenneth Brownsberger co-authored "Universe: Origins and Evolution," a general astronomy textbook published in 1997 by Wadsworth Publishing Co. of Belmont, Calif.

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