Naming stars

In my previous post I described how stars get their names and why most of them consist of strings of numbers and letters. Ultimately, there are just too many stars for it to be useful, or indeed practical, to give them all poetic sounding monikers.

However, some rather enterprising parts of humanity saw a gap in the market and they will name a star whatever you like, for a fee. For some reason snake-oil salesmen come to my mind. The important point to note here is that anybody could set themselves up as a business selling naming rights to stars. They could even sell names to stars that other people and companies have also named. There is no exclusivity and there is no authority other than that self-given. In the same way, anyone could start a business giving naming rights to species of animals (the Slacker Astronomy sloth anyone?) or naming countries (Australia could be Astrobloggerland).

Given these reasons then, why would someone pay good money to name a star? The star naming companies claim that they are selling a novelty gift that may get people interested in the night sky (scant evidence for that) and that their customers are aware of the fact that there is no recognition of the name other than by that company (are they?). At best this puts the product on the level of a "World's Best Dad certificate", but at worst it looks highly suspect. I am aware that some people pay to name stars after recently deceased relatives as a thoughtful gesture in their memory. These people are totally unaware that this trade is just an exercise in making fancy certificates and that puts people like me in an awkward situation. Do I tell them that the certificate has no meaning and was a waste of money, or do I protect their feelings at a difficult time and go along with it? This situation may be familiar to many astronomers, both professional and amateur, and the star naming companies do not have to deal with it. As a result, I do not like these companies and neither does the International Astronomical Union - the official international body that represents astronomers.

Having never bought a star name - I cannot bring myself to support these businesses in any way - I have never properly examined the 'product'. That is, until now. The other week my friend Peter told me that he had been bought a star - registered with the Intergalactic Star Database - as a bit of a joke. It turns out that a star naming pack can be bought in high street stores such as WHSmith for 'only' £29.99. Encouragingly, it does come with a copy of a Philips Star Chart and Planisphere. These useful tools (worth only around £10) are the only things in the pack. Despite my poor opinion of these certificates, I was still rather shocked by the poor, and frankly misleading, information provided. First let me show you the certificate:

Star Name Certificate
Naming certificate for The Proogs Star. CREDIT: Peter Scandrett
All very nice even if I could knock together something similar in around ten minutes. Looking a bit more closely at the certificate, I wondered if "Star Location: M6" meant the sixth Messier object. According to the explanatory document it is.

Star location
Document to show the location of the star CREDIT: Peter Scandrett
As you can see, the document give lots of information about M6 rather than the star that has been named. This is a bit sneaky of them, especially as the star (circled in red) looks more likely to be a member of the little clump of stars below it known as M7. After a bit of hunting with the excellent Aladin Java applet (Centre de Donnees astronomiques de Strasbourg), I reckon the circled star could be officially recognised HD 163519 - a magnitude 8.2 star - but it is a bit tricky to compare on my screen, so I could be wrong. Even so, you would need a telescope to see it.

Finally, the "Altitude" box has me completely confused. What are the hashed areas? What is the black hemisphere? Presumably the curved lines are supposed to indicate the elevations of two different stars over time to show where to look on May 6th. Why are there two sets of curved lines? From the UK, the maximum elevation of M6 (or M7) would be about six or seven degrees, so neither line represents the star in question. It just doesn't seem to make any sense.

Rather than waste £30 on something as silly as this, buy a copy of Norton's Star Atlas, Collins Pocket Guide to Stars and Planets or a Philips Star Chart. You'll save yourself some money and you'll get much more out of the night sky.

Many thanks to Peter for letting me pull apart his star certificate on this blog.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 12th May 2006 (22:43 UTC) | Permalink
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