Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" - Philip Plait (2002)

Part V. Beam Me Up

Chapter 23. Star Hustlers: Star Naming for Dummies

hen I was in high school, I had friend who was an expert on movies. He knew everything about every movie I had ever heard of. Director, actors, music, set design-the depth of his knowledge was amazing. One night at my house we were using my telescope and I said, "Let's take a look at Albireo. It's a cool doublestar." I swung the telescope around and in a minute or two had it in the eyepiece. He stepped up to the eyepiece and took a moment to look at the pretty double. When he backed up, he took a look at the sky and said, "How in the world did you know where that star was? Look at all of them!"

I glanced up, and simply asked, "Who directed From Here to Eternity?"

Without missing a beat he replied, "Fred Zinnemann." He paused for a moment and then smiled. "Right," he said.

He understood. I knew the stars because I'm familiar with them. Reading the sky is like reading a map; after a while you know your way around. After you've seen a movie enough times, you get to know the characters, and if you're interested enough you'll learn details that not many other people know.

Decades later, I can make my daughter smile by pointing out stars to her. She wants to know their names, and I tell her. She repeats the name after me, but moves on to another star as quickly as she can. She wants to know all their names.

That's a tall order. There's no shortage of stars in the night sky. A keen-eyed observer-if the conditions are right-can see several thousand stars with the unaided eye. With even a modest telescope, hundreds of thousands of individual stars can be seen. The Hubble Space Telescope, in order to stay pointed at a target, employs a guide-star catalog that contains tens of millions of stars. As you'd imagine, naming them all can be quite a challenge.

But not for everyone. There are companies that offer to sell you the right to name a star after someone-yourself, perhaps, or a loved one or friend. For a fee, and not necessarily a small one, you receive a certificate authenticating some star in the heavens with the name you bestow on it. Some companies even give you the coordinates of your star and a stylish map so you can find it. There are many organizations like this, and one thing most have in common is that they strongly imply-and some come right out and saythat this star is now officially named after you. Congratulations!

But does that star really have your name? If you think so, I strongly urge you to close this book and read its title to yourself, out loud. Maybe twice.

The answer, of course, is no. The naming of stars is not a haphazard business. There is an organization called the International Astronomical Union that is in charge of giving celestial objects their official names. And by official, I mean the name that will commonly be used by professional astronomers when they refer to the object. There are rules for naming objects; asteroids, moon, comets, even craters on other planets get named in a certain way.

Stars typically have some sort of catalog name. As it happens, practically every star you can see with a modest telescope already has a name, or more properly a designation. Usually they are named for their position in the sky, which would be sort of like naming a tiny island after its longitude and latitude. Only the brightest ones, visible to the naked eye, might have proper names like Betelgeuse, Vega, or Polaris.

Most stars are named using Greek letters and the name of the constellation, like the famous Alpha Centauri or the not-so-famous Sigma Octans. The brightest star in the constellation is called Alpha, the second brightest is Beta, and so on. Those letters run out quickly, and so numbers are used after that. John Flamsteed was a seventeenth-century astronomer who catalogued thousands of stars, and many still bear his name. Over 300,000 fainter ones are listed in the German Bonner Durchmusterung catalog and bear the initials "BD" before a number representing their coordinates. Thousands of stars are in the Henry Draper catalog, named in honor of an astronomer who was among the first to use the new tool of spectroscopy in the 1870s (and who also took the first photograph of the Orion Nebula, 84 years to the day before I was born). These stars have the letters "HD" in front of a number representing their position on the sky.

Many stars are loaded down with a half-dozen or more obscure designations. Only a very rare few are named after individuals; van Maanen's star or Barnard's star are examples of those. These typically are special stars, like ones that are particularly close by or that have an unusually high velocity through the Galaxy. They're usually named after the astronomer who discovered their unusual properties. One star, Cor Coroli, is an exception-it's named after the heart of King Charles II, who patronized astronomy in the 1600s.

Not all of us are so lucky. Getting a star named after you is a very rare event.

Of course, the companies trying to sell stars would have you believe differently. You, too, can be immortalized in the heavens .. . if you believe their ads. Some are interesting indeed, claiming that astronomers will actually use the name you choose for the star. I'll let you in on a secret, as an astronomer: we don't. Many of us aren't particularly fond of the alphabet-soup names we use, but it's better than using the name "John Q. Public," and we don't have to change what we call a star because some company phones us to say that someone new has signed up for their "service."

The bottom line is, despite any claims by these companies, the name you give a star is just that: a name you give it. It isn't official and has no validity within the scientific community.

Now really, if all you care about is sending a unique gift to someone, and you like the fancy certificate, that's fine. But in their ads, many of these companies don't go out of their way to say that the names aren't really official. Many simply let you assume the name is official and do little to dissuade you of this notion.

Perhaps the most well-known star naming company is the International Star Registry (ISR). They claim to be the first company to sell star names, as if this gives them more of a foothold in the industry. Perhaps it does. Their web site claims they have sold hundreds of thousands of stars, and at $50 to $100 or so a pop you can do the math. The company isn't going broke.

They run a lot of ads on the radio. They used to claim that the star name you choose will go into a book in the Library of Congress and be printed in a book stored in a bank vault in Switzerland. In a sense, the former claim is true: any copyrighted material gets stored in the Library of Congress if it is registered by the claimant. The ISR is able to copyright their catalogs; a copyright is something you can buy on your own if you like. And if you have the cash to store a book in a Swiss vault, more power to you. This doesn't mean a whole lot as far as star names go, despite the ads.

So don't always believe what you hear. The New York City Office of Consumer Affairs certainly didn't. They levied a violation against the ISR for using deceptive advertising in New York City, with potential fines totaling up to $3,500 (a tiny fraction of the company's income). The Library of Congress pressured the ISR from citing the Library in the ISR's ads, and evidently they complied; the Library is no longer mentioned.

The astronomical community had something to say as well. You might think that astronomers wouldn't really care about this practice, since it doesn't directly affect them. Unfortunately, it can, and in a very emotional way. Consider this: Robert Martino, assistant director of the Perkins Observatory at Ohio Wesleyan University, points out that many people buy star names for friends or relatives who have died. He personally has had at least four groups of people at different times come to him and ask to see the star they named after their dead loved one. How does an astronomer tell a grieving person that the star doesn't really possess that name? Most astronomers don't; they point the telescope and swallow their anger.

Martino, however, finally reached his limit. He had faced too many grieving families, so he put up a scathing web page on the observatory web site about star naming. In the year 2000 the ISR retaliated.

According to Martino, the ISR put quite a bit of legal pressure on the observatory, which does not have a lot of money. Martino took down his page, although he was unhappy about it. Martino says nothing on his site was untrue. Just unflattering.

Martino also notes that the ISR was never directly indicated anywhere on his page. There was, however, a link at the bottom of the page about the New York City case, which did mention the ISR. Apparently, according to Martino, that was still too much for the company, which again contacted the university, warning them that the web site should not talk about star naming at all. The situation was quickly turning into one of First Amendment rights. Martino felt it was "a case of a consumer advocate being muzzled." According to Martino, after this event several astronomers who had web pages about star-naming companies edited them, prominently mentioning the First Amendment. Some sites even linked to a copy of the Constitution.

However, it didn't end there. Martino took down the web page but he was still incensed. He made his opinion clear on the Internet through various mailing lists and bulletin boards. Martino says the ISR once again contacted the university and insisted they wanted Martino to cease talking about them, claiming that Martino was representing himself as a spokesman for the university. This claim, Martino says, has "no basis whatsoever," and that his comments were made on his own time, using his private Internet account through his own Internet provider, and that the university had nothing to do with it. Still, the university sent Martino a letter making it clear that he'd better stop talking about them. Martino wound up moving the whole page about star naming to his private web site, where you can still find it at http://home.columbus.rr.com/starfaq.

Martino does extract some small amount of satisfaction, though. His new star-naming web page gets far more traffic than it did before the ISR contacted him. Evidently the publicity woke up other astronomers and they now link to his page as well.

I'll note that Martino has a daughter named Celeste: she is named after the stars and not the other way around.

For their part, the ISR must be aware that many people buy stars as memorials; they have partnered with the Cancer Research Campaign, a company in the United Kingdom that raises money for cancer research. It's certainly understandable to do something to honor those who have died, especially family members. However, it might be better to donate money directly to a charitable organization, even more so if it's an organization promoting something about which you feel strongly.

Incidentally, on three separate occasions over the course of many weeks I called the ISR asking for comments on this situation, and even sent them a written letter. I also tried to get the university's side of the story. However, as of the time of this writing I have not received a reply from either of them.

The best thing to say is probably, "Caveat emptor." If you go in with your eyes open, understanding that star-naming is all completely unofficial, maybe there's no harm done. However, judging from stories I've heard from astronomers at planetaria and observatories, when most visitors ask to see "their" star, they don't understand that these companies are not official in any way. As the city of New York found, many of their ads really are deceptive.

Ironically, the ISR's knowledge of astronomy could be better. The Australia-New Zealand office of the ISR has a web page (http:// www.starregistry.com.au) where you can order a star name and find out more about the company. They have a "Frequently Asked Questions" page, and on it is the following gem:

Usually, these FAQs are paraphrases of real questions, and it wouldn't surprise me if people asked this particular question. But a company that sells star names and makes all sorts of claims about astronomy should really understand the difference between a star in the sky and a shooting star, which is just another name for a meteor. Meteors have nothing at all to do with stars (see chapter 15 for more information about shooting stars). If an actual star fell out of the sky, we'd have bigger problems on our hands than finding a new star to hang a name on.

This same web site also claims there are 2,873 stars visible to the naked eye; in reality, there are more like 10,000 (depending on sky conditions). Besides being too small, that figure is awfully precise. How do they know it's not 2,872 stars, or 2,880? Using overly precise numbers sounds to me like another way to make them seem more scientific than they really are. If the ISR doesn't understand even the most basic properties of visual astronomy, do you really want to buy a star from them?

Perhaps, after all this, it's time for me to come clean. I'll admit here that I have "my own" star. Many years ago my brothers bought it from the ISR and gave it to me as a birthday gift. That star-named Philip Cary Plait-is located in the constellation of Andromeda, and is about 100 times too faint to be seen with the unaided eye.

I lost the original certificate for the star years ago and out of curiosity I called the ISR to see if they could tell me where the star is. They were surprised; evidently, and ironically, it was one of the first stars sold by the company in their first year of business, but they were able to give me its coordinates. They were not very accurate but I was able to find it on a digital star map, which can be seen in the photograph.

Can you spot it? It's the one in the center. You can see there are many other stars in that field, including a lot that are brighter. None can be seen with the unaided eye, by the way. The kicker is that "my" star already has a name-BD+48° 683. For about 130 years this designation has been catalogued in the German Bonner Durchmusterung catalog used by practically every astronomer on the planet. In the end, I think they have the edge in the naming business.

So if you really want to buy a star, I urge you not to throw your money at these companies. You could just go out and buy some nice graphics software and make your own star-naming certificate, then pick any one you want, even the brightest in the night sky, and it's just as official.

The star "Philip Cary Plait"-a/k/a BD+48° 683-lurking not very obviously in a field of thousands of other stars. The image shown is 1 degree across, roughly twice the size of the full Moon on the sky. Image © 1995-2000 by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. The Digitized Sky Survey was produced at the Space Telescope Science Institute under U.S. Government grant NAG W-2166. (The images of these surveys are based on photographic data obtained using the Oschin Schmidt Telescope on Palomar Mountain and the UK Schmidt Telescope. The plates were processed into compressed digital form with the permission of these institutions.)

And I have an even better idea. Most observatories and planetaria are strapped for cash. Instead of buying a star, you could give them a donation to sponsor educational programs. That way, instead of just having one star you've never seen named for you, you'll be giving hundreds or thousands of people a chance to see all the stars in the sky.

Remember-the stars are for everyone, and they're free. Why not go to your local observatory and take a peek?