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Why You Should Never Buy a Star for Someone

star scams

Occasionally we’ll get people coming into the planetarium with expensive pieces of paper, wondering if we can show them the star that was purchased in their honor.  For over thirty years this romantic scheme has been going on.  No, the star that your loved-one bought for you is not officially recognized.  So, here’s the skinny on why those name-a-star registry companies should be looked at as entertainment only.

First things first, stars aren’t named the way you and I are named.  The reason to give a celestial object a designation or name is to aid in locating, describing, and discussing it.   Alphanumeric designations are usually sorted by position, which historically made them easy to look up in catalogues; precise coordinates provide an exact identification.

Names are fine for small groups of well-known objects, like the planets or naked-eye stars, but its not ideal or practical for catalogues of millions of stars. But you’re probably thinking to yourself, “what about stars like Vega and Sirius?  They all have unique names.”  Hundreds of stars have names for some cultural reasons (mythology, agricultural seasons, navigation, timekeeping, etc.) or scientific reasons (variability, unusual properties, proximity, exoplanet host star, etc.).

So, who comes up with labeling stars?   That would be the International Astronomical Union, or the IAU for short.

The IAU has formally recognized a couple hundred proper names for stars via the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) and some exoplanet host stars via the IAU Executive Committee Working Group on Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites. The WGSN is also in the process of cataloguing names of stars from cultures around the world.. Some of these cultural names may eventually be approved as official IAU proper names for these stars. At this point, the focus of the WGSN’s activities is on names of stars of historical, cultural, or astrophysical importance.

These name-a-star registries charge fees for naming stars, sometimes as low as $20.  And there are many still operating today.  But this is tantamount to fraud because naming stars after people would make it impossible for astronomers to find specific stars.  Imagine trying to find a specific John Smith in the United States.  Unless you had that person’s social security number, you wouldn’t be able to find them very easily.

What’s really bad is that some of these sites sell “memorial” services.  Yes, you can name a star after a deceased loved one.  Take note, that none of these “registered” star names are recognized by any official scientific organization.

“But it’s published in the Library of Congress!”

Anyone can, and typically they must, send a copy of any published book to the National Library.  Yes, these sites will self-publish their own catalogue and, as every book, will be registered and given a number.  Just because their bound text has a number assigned to it doesn’t mean that the contents therein have been checked and approved.  It also doesn’t mean that the same company can’t simply “resell” the same star that they sold to multiple people over and over again.

But who are the IAU, and what gives them authority to name stars?

The International Astronomical Union, or the IAU, was founded in 1919. Its mission is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects through international cooperation. Its individual members—structured in Divisions, Commissions, and Working groups—are professional astronomers from all over the world, at the Ph.D. level and beyond, and active in professional research and education in astronomy. The IAU has over 12,000 Individual Members from more than 90 countries worldwide. There are 79 National Members represented by national science academies and/or national astronomical organizations, and those nations comprise three-quarters of the Earth’s population.

Since its inception, one of the IAU’s activities has been to standardize nomenclature of celestial objects among the international astronomical community. Over the past century, various IAU working groups comprised of astronomers from around the world have standardized nomenclature for constellations, surface features on the Moon, planets, planetary satellites, and small bodies; planetary satellites, asteroids, and objects outside the Solar System. These efforts have stemmed from necessity as sometimes designations/names have been ambiguous or confusing.

The names approved by the IAU represent the consensus of professional astronomers around the world and national science academies, who as “Individual Members” and “National Members”, respectively, adhere to the guidelines of the International Astronomical Union. The IAU is organized into an Executive Committee, and several Divisions, Commissions, and Working Groups. Every three years, the IAU General Assembly votes for members of the Executive Committee which leads and organizes the Union’s activities. Most relevant to the issue of nomenclature, there are IAU Working Groups which carry out well-defined tasks on behalf of the IAU (these tasks are spelled out in Terms of Reference approved by IAU leadership).

For nearly a century, the IAU has been the internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies and surface features on them. And names are not sold, but assigned according to internationally accepted rules.

Basically, this means names assigned by the IAU are recognized and used by scientists, space agencies, authors of astronomical literature, and other authorities worldwide. When observing stars and planets or launching space missions to them, or reporting about them in the news, everybody needs to know exactly which location a particular name refers to. The names assigned by the IAU are those that are used. These rules are firm where claims of property could theoretically be made, i.e. primarily in the solar system (where also treaties negotiated through the United Nations apply). Terrestrial makers of international law have so far had more urgent concerns than creating rules for “buying” totally inaccessible corners of infinite space, so there is no written text that can be twisted and interpreted.

Well, if buying a star for your loved one is out of the picture by now, what can you do for them as a gift if they have a love for astronomy?  Plenty, actually.  Go to your nearest planetarium or local amateur or professional observatory. They are staffed with people who feel just the same. They often have stores with books with wonderful astronomy pictures from the ground or from space, or fine astronomy magazines that all make great gifts. They can also direct you to the local astronomy club or society where enthusiasts will be happy to show you and your friend the real stars through their own telescopes.

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