The Stars Are Free

The Constellation Orion from Bayer’s sky atlas of 1603. Note the alpha star (Betelgeuse) and beta star (Rigel).

Once again, I’ve received an email from a member of the public with a heart-rending story. Someone has purchased a star name as a gift to someone they love, or in remembrance of someone who has passed away. They write to me to say they can’t find that star and ask me how to find it. Then once again I am tasked with informing a loving and well-meaning person that they’ve been scammed.

These businesses should be illegal. They sell what they don’t own and have no rights to. They give themselves such official-sounding names: Star Registration or Star Name Registry. For between $20 and $100, you can buy a nice certificate that claims that there is a star given the name you have chosen and it has been officially registered somewhere, in a database even! That is stored in a vault even! One way they get away with this is to assign one of the dimmest stars possible in an obscure corner of the sky, what you and I call “field stars” or “background” stars, taken from an old star atlas. Some of these businesses have heard the complaints against them so they advertise that they sell only visible stars. One even offers to sell bright stars. Phooey.

These businesses should be illegal. They sell what they don’t own and have no rights to. They give themselves such official-sounding names: Star Registration or Star Name Registry. For between $20 and $100, you can buy a nice certificate that claims that there is a star given the name you have chosen and it has been officially registered somewhere, in a database even! That is stored in a vault even! One way they get away with this is to assign one of the dimmest stars possible in an obscure corner of the sky, what you and I call “field stars” or “background” stars, taken from an old star atlas. Some of these businesses have heard the complaints against them so they advertise that they sell only visible stars. One even offers to sell bright stars. Phooey.

The only agency that names and numbers stars is the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the professional organization for astronomers, and it doesn’t sell anything. The brightest stars have traditional names that come to us from ancient days: Aldebaran, Mizar, Polaris. Johann Bayer in 1603 published a star atlas ranking the brightest stars in a constellation using the Greek alphabet, a system still used today on star maps and in scientific writing. Polaris, the brightest star in Ursa Minor is Alpha UMi, or α UMi, and Kochab, the next brightest star, is Beta (β) UMi. After that, there is an array of numbering systems created by subsequent atlases and observatories. Learning these systems is a nice stroll through astronomical history.

The IAU takes time to name and number stars, it has procedures and standards, and it doesn’t peddle stars to the public. The best way to share the joy and wonder of stars is to spend a night watching their display across a very dark sky. That doesn’t cost anything, and it’s available to everyone on earth. Or should be.