Buying a Star: the Facts

This article was extracted from the sci.astro Frequently Asked Questions list, compiled by Jo Lazio

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

    SELLING STAR NAMES

    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.

    OFFICIAL STAR-NAMING PROCEDURES

    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.