A question which we astronomers are often asked by members of the public is “How do I go about naming a star after my wife/girlfriend/daughter/late grandmother/etc.?” The answer which most of us invariably give is, “You can’t – at least, not in any way which actually means anything!”
For the last couple of decades, a number of companies have been offering a “service”, whereby for a substantial fee, they claim to “officially” name a star in honour of a designated person. A great many people claim to have “named” stars in this way, either as gifts to loved ones, or as memorials to deceased members of their families. The recipient, or the nominator in the case of a memorial, receives a fancy certificate, and a star chart showing the location of “their star”. The allocation of their chosen name, to a star arbitrarily chosen by the company, is recorded in a “register” maintained by the company.
As attractive as this idea may sound, it is, in my opinion – and that of almost all astronomers - absolutely meaningless. Despite anything which the vendors might claim to the contrary, there is nothing whatsoever “official” about the names so assigned; they will never be recognised by astronomers or appear on any astronomical star atlas. In fact, the names will never appear anywhere, except in the book produced by the company and on the certificates sent to purchasers.
There are now a dozen or so different companies involved in this business, each of which produces its own independent “register” of star names; this simple fact, in itself, indicates that none of said “registers” have any official status! By far the biggest player in the field is the International Star Registry ( ISR ), founded in 1979, which now has offices in several countries. It has supposedly “named” over a million stars, and has made profits in excess of US$50 million. Its numerous competitors are merely “also rans” in comparison.
For reasons which will become clear later in this essay, almost all astronomers disapprove of the “Name a Star” business; many are strongly opposed to it, and have campaigned for the trade to be banned. ( I myself led an unsuccessful campaign to have it outlawed in the UK. ) It is a long-established convention among astronomers that, while anyone may propose names for astronomical objects, such names are never regarded as “official”, until they are approved by the International Astronomical Union ( IAU ), the world’s governing body of astronomy – and the IAU definitely does not condone the selling of naming rights for cash. A great many astronomical objects, other than stars, have been given human names – but these are to commemorate people who have contributed significantly to science, or to other aspects of human culture. The IAU does not name objects in honour of people’s wives, girlfriends, children or dear departed grannies!
The IAU Secretariat states that “The IAU disassociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of ‘selling’ fictitious star names.” To read the IAU’s complete statement on the subject, see www.iau.org/IAU/FAQ/starnames.html .
I must concede, from the start, that the star naming companies are not actually doing anything illegal – though many astronomers, including myself, believe that their trade should be made illegal. Since the IAU is a purely academic body, with no legal status, there is nothing stated in law to the effect that it alone may name astronomical objects, and nothing to prevent anyone else doing so. ( In fairness, ISR acknowledges in its advertising that its “register” is not recognised by astronomers, and that the names are recorded only in the company’s records and its published book. ) It is, however, generally accepted among the scientific community as a whole, that the only “official” astronomical names are those assigned by the IAU.
So, while there is no legal reason why ISR and similar companies can’t assign names to stars for cash, the value of such names is very much a matter of opinion. Is there any point in paying good money to assign a name to a star, which will never be recognised by astronomers? The reader is entitled to form his or her own opinion; I am simply writing this essay to express mine.
Incidentally, some people have been known to say that they have “bought a star” for someone. Of course, this isn’t meant literally; nor do any of the companies intend it to be – though at least one of them actually uses the phrase “Buy a star” on its web site. Obviously, no-one has any form of “ownership” of a star; what you pay for is simply the “right” to assign a name to one.
In Sections 2 and 3, I’ll say a little about the naming conventions which are used by astronomers for stars and other objects. In Sections 4 and 5, I’ll expand upon the practical and moral reasons for our objection to the star naming business.
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