Can I Buy a Star?, Can I Name a Star?
by Jeff Polston (Feb. 26, 2002) (updated: April 19, 2004)
Take a look at this image of a star chart. I quickly drew it on my computer using the Paint program that comes with Microsoft Windows. I think most people will recognize the asterism of stars as the Big Dipper, which is located in the constellation of Ursa Major. I've circled the star known as SAO 28572 and I've named it "Bubba". Its coordinates are 12h 56m Right Ascension and 54d 5m Declination. I'm going to print this star chart out, put it in a shoebox, and then store it under my bed. Will this new star name be valid and official? Most people would probably say no.
Now consider the following scenario. You pay $50 to a company that says it can name a star for you or a loved one. They send you a nicely printed star chart that has your star circled and identified. They give you a beautiful certificate that identifies the new name of the star along with its coordinates. They inform you that your star information will be stored in a vault in Switzerland and it will be in a book that is registered with the Copyright Office of the United States of America. Will this new star name be valid and official? Most people would probably say yes. The true answer is no!
The fact of the matter is that the star chart I quickly created is just as valid and official as the $50 one from the star naming company. I could have even done it in crayon. In other words, neither of them is valid or official when it comes to the professional astronomical world. The only organization with the ability to name objects in the sky is the International Astronomical Union. And even then they only name comets, asteroids, and new moons around the planets. Stars do not get new names. The only stars that have names are the ones that have had those names for hundreds of years, or ones that may have some other significance.
Who are these star naming companies? There are quite a few out there. Here's a sample list:
Name a Star: http://www.nameastar.net
Celestial Registry: http://www.celestialregistry.com
International Star Registry: http://www.starregistry.com
All these companies claim they will name a star for you. Just realize that it's not official and is basically a novelty item. Although some claim that their information is copyrighted, that applies to anything you create in the United States. When you write down your grocery list it is automatically copyrighted. So saying something is copyrighted doesn't make it any more valid or official. Saying something is stored in a vault somewhere doesn't make it any more valid either. You could put bubble gum wrappers in there if you wanted to. These types of descriptions fool some people into thinking that the star has officially been re-named and astronomers will now refer to it by the new name. It's a marketing ploy and nothing could be further from reality. Astronomers will never see these "star" registries. They will continue to refer to the stars by their numbers and ancient names as they have done for years. And since there is more than one company naming the stars, and they don't share their databases, there's a chance that they will name the same star after different people. Doesn't sound so unique to me.
And don't expect to actually be able to go outside and point to your star. I've encountered two or three people so far that have "purchased" stars and so far these stars have been well below the naked eye limit. Unless you have a telescope or a good pair of binoculars, and know what you're doing, chances are that you will never see your particular star.
Are these companies doing something illegal? I don't think so. But I do think some of these companies take advantage of those ignorant of how astronomical bodies get named. The problem is that many people who use the services of some of these companies think it's for real. I believe the people are being deceived because of how official the whole thing sounds. They truly think the star has their name on it. To be fair, I must say that a few companies do in fact inform the customer that this is for novelty entertainment only, but you often have to look beyond the home page and order page. "Name a Star" acknowledges that other companies might name the same star and that scientists will continue to use the same numbering scheme they have always used. "Naming-a-star.com" says that what they do is just symbolic and that the scientific community will never use their list of names. "Celestial Registry" says their product is a novelty item. The "International Star Registry" has finally added some small text at the bottom of their page that says their name is "not recognized by the scientific astronomic community". I'm of the opinion that all of them should have some type of disclaimer on every page of their web pages.
What should you do? Well, if you want to give these outfits your hard earned money for a pretty certificate and a chart with a star circled, feel free to do so. Just realize that it's just a novelty item and not valid or official within the scientific community. Realize that no scientist or astronomer will ever refer to the star by the name you give it. Realize that other companies may be "naming" that very same star after someone else or someone's dog. Realize that you may not be able to actually see the star without a pair of binoculars or telescope, and even then you may need the help of someone knowledgeable about astronomy.
You can just as easily "name" a VISIBLE star yourself. There are plenty of free astronomy software packages that will help you identify a star and print out a star chart. You can even draw your own chart. Go to the library to find a good book. You can pick a star of a particular color. You can pick a star in a special constellation. Pick a star that is seen in a certain season or month. There are all kinds of ways to make the star really special and unique. The fact is that if you do it yourself, you have total control. You can buy blank certificates from an office supply store and print out whatever you want it to say. You could even get a notary to stamp it to make it look official. And with all the money you save by doing it yourself, you can then go out to dinner, or to the movies, or buy a real, physical present like flowers, or candy, or jewelry.
The point of this article is to let people know that these so-called star naming companies have no more authority or validity in naming the stars than you do. If you do decide to spend your money on one of these companies, at least you'll be doing it as an informed consumer.
NOTE: Here's a great article on the subject from the International Astronomical Union: http://www.iau.org/public/themes/buying_star_names
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