There’s been a debate among professional astronomers about who should have the right and/or obligation to name stars and other space objects. The visible stars have had many names, because they were named over time by many different people and in many cultures. But, around the 1930s, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) took it upon itself to divide the sky – “officially” – into 88 constellations, and since then the IAU has been naming all sorts of space objects. In recent years, bowing to pressure from outside groups that allow individuals and non-astronomers to name stars (for a price), the IAU ran a global competition to let non-professional astronomers participate in naming stars. It announced 227 star names a year ago, which were chosen in that semi-public process. This week (December 11, 2017), the IAU announced it had formally approved names for 86 more stars, without asking for public input.
These new names have now been added to the IAU’s stellar name catalog, and thus the IAU’s catalog now contains “approved” names for 313 stars. Many of the names are what we amateur astronomers have been calling these stars all along. Most of the 313 are, after all, among the brightest stars in our skies. But some are entirely new names.
The new star names are for somewhat fainter stars than those announced last year. The brightest one in this new batch is a 2nd-magnitude star known as Delta Velorum, which has been given the name Alsephina, stemming from the Arabic name al-safinah meaning the ship. Delta Velorum is part of the constellation Vela the Sails, which used to be one large constellation called Argo Navis, the ship of the Argonauts. The IAU got rid of Argo Navis when it “officially” named constellations in the 1930s, dividing the great celestial ship into several smaller constellations. But I digress … easy to do when speaking of names for stars and constellations.
The IAU explained in its recent statement:
Traditionally, most star names used by astronomers have come from Arabic, Greek, or Latin origins. [The 86 new names are] drawn from those used by other cultures, namely Australian Aboriginal, Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, Polynesian, and South African.
… Modern star catalogs contain millions or even billions of objects, most of which are identified by designations — strings of letters and numbers indicating their position or ordering. The IAU reviews the names of the brightest and most interesting stars rather than assigning designations using merely strings of letters and numbers. Some bright stars have accumulated dozens of names and spelling variations over the years.
This time, the naming has been done exclusively by the IAU Working Group on Star Names. Eric Mamajek, chair and organiser of this sub-committee within the IAU, said the astronomers had been:
… researching traditional star names from cultures around the world and adopting unique names and spellings to avoid confusion in astronomical catalogues and star atlases. These names help ensure that intangible astronomical heritage from skywatchers around the world, and across the centuries, are preserved for use in an era of exoplanetary systems.
Unless you know the stars well, perhaps the only star name you’ll recognize on the IAU’s most recent list of named stars is Barnard’s Star. It’s not a bright star but is one of the nearest stars to our sun. It was discovered by astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard in 1916 and for decades was suspected of having a planet. The IAU said that the name Barnard’s Star – which has been in common use for a century – can stay.
I enjoyed reading about the IAU’s new Chinese star names for 11 stars. Three of those names came from the Chinese idea of lunar mansions, vertical strips of sky that act as markers for following the nightly progress of the moon, providing a basis for a lunar calendar. There’s a logic and history to that that’s very appealing, to me.
And certainly there must be equally good reasons for the IAU’s new star names from other cultures, as well. It’s a thoughtful and careful list.
Still, it rankles me and some others in astronomy that the professional astronomers of the IAU are claiming the exclusive right to give ‘approved’ names to the stars. The stars – and the sky – belong to all of us. Other organizations have popped up that will also name these features for you, for a price.
EarthSky doesn’t take an “official” view on any of this, but, personally, I don’t like fences. I’m always wishing my neighbors would agree to remove the fences in our backyards, for example (although I know they never will), so it’d be like one big yard. That’s just my mindset, and I know many of you will disagree; I’m just a person who likes wide open spaces. So you won’t be surprised to know I feel a touch of sadness about these new “approved” names. It’s like these stars now have little fences, of sorts, around them.
As for the companies that offer to name stars for a price … it’s a fact that many people enjoy having stars or exoplanets or planetary features named for themselves. Where’s the harm? If it makes your mom, or your sweetheart, or anyone you love feel good, I say … do it!
Bottom line: Astronomers often know multiple names for stars, or call them by their Greek letter names. Now, the International Astronomical Union has chosen “approved” star names for 86 more stars.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.