There has been a flurry of activity over the past month around "buying" or "registering" stars in people's names as either a gift or a tribute. With the gift giving season approaching, there is likely to be even more interest in this ill-defined and poorly understood practice. To set matters straight, John Radzilowicz, Director of the Henry Buhl Jr Planetarium at the Carnegie Science Center has allowed the AAAP to publish the following article which originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
So You Want to Be A Star?
By John G. Radzilowicz, Director
Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium & Observatory
Carnegie Science Center
The stars are beautiful. So, it's really no surprise that many people would like to have a special connection with them. It's a perfectly understandable desire. But sometimes this desire can lead to a little confusion.
For example, you may have heard some radio ads for companies that sell star names. Many people have heard that for a few dollars they can permanently name a star in the sky for themselves or for someone else.
The truth is that official star names - those that will be recognized and used by people all around the world - are just not for sale.
In fact, most stars don't even have names! Only two hundred or so of the brightest stars have been given proper names. These ancient names are usually Arabic, Greek or Latin and have become official from centuries of use and by the formal acceptance of astronomers worldwide.
But most stars are only identified by catalogue numbers and/or their position on the sky. That may not seem very fun or exciting, but when trying to keep track of so many stars it actually makes a lot of sense! Tracking these official names for stars and other astronomical bodies is the responsibility of an organization called the International Astronomical Union. The IAU is made up of astronomers the world over and is recognized as the only organization that can assign official names to celestial objects.
So what about those ads that say you can name a star? Well, there are several companies that will "sell" you a star name. You get a nice certificate for your wall, but the name is completely unofficial. No astronomers will use "your" star name in their work. NASA won't use it either. And different companies will sell the same star to different people. Your star name is really not yours at all. In addition, your star will likely be far too dim to be seen without a good telescope.
So, enjoy the sky and love the stars. But if you decide to "buy" one, be sure you know exactly what you are (and aren't) getting!
If you want to spend money on a gift of real value or a lasting tribute, consider joining or making a donation to your local astronomy club, or a nationwide organization such as the International Dark Sky Association.
Thank you for taking the time to be informed. May you have clear, dark skies.