There are services which will let you name a star in the sky after a loved one. You can commemorate a special day, or the life of an amazing person. But can you really name a star?
The answer is yes, and no.
Names of astronomical objects are agreed upon by the International Astronomical Union. If this name sounds familiar, it’s the same people who voted that Pluto is not a planet.
There are a few stars with traditional names which have been passed down through history. Names like Betelgeuse, Sirius, or Rigel. Others were named in the last few hundred years for highly influential astronomers.
These are the common names, agreed upon by the astronomical community.
Most stars, especially dim ones, are only given coordinates and a designation in a catalog. There are millions and millions of stars out there with a long string of numbers and letters for a name. There’s the Gliese catalog of nearby stars, or the Guide Star Catalog which contains 945 million stars.
The IAU hasn’t taken on any new names for stars, and probably won’t ever. The bottom line is that numbers are much more useful for astronomers searching and studying stars.
But what about the companies that will offer to let you name a star? Each of these companies maintains their own private database containing stars from the catalog and associated star names. They’ll provide you with a nice certificate and instructions for finding it in the sky, but these names are not recognized by the international astronomical community.
You won’t see your name appearing in a scientific research journal. In fact, it’s possible that the star you’ve named with one organization will be given a different name by another group.
So can you really name a star after yourself or a loved one?
Yes, you can, in the same way that you can name an already-named skyscraper after yourself. Everyone else might keep calling it the Empire State Building, but you’ll have a certificate that says otherwise.
There are a few objects that can be named, and recognized by the IAU.
If you’re the first person to spot a comet, you’ll have it named after you, or your organization. For example, Comet Shoemaker-Levy was discovered simultaneously by Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy.
If you discover asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects, you can suggest names which may be ratified by the IAU. Asteroids, as well as comets, get their official numerical designation, and then a common name.
The amateur astronomer Jeff Medkeff, who tragically died of liver cancer at age 40, named asteroids after a handful of people in the astronomy, space and skeptic community.
Kuiper Belt Objects are traditionally given names from mythology. And so, Pluto Killer Mike Brown’s Caltech team suggested the names for Eris, Haumea and Makemake.
So what about extrasolar planets? Right now, these planets are attached to the name of the star. For example, if a planet is discovered around one of the closer stars in the Gliese catalog, it’s given a letter designation.
An organization called Uwingu is hoping to raise funds to help discover new extrasolar planets, and then reward those funders with naming rights, but so far, this policy hasn’t been adopted by the IAU.
Personally, I think that officially allowing the public to name astronomical objects would be a good idea. It would spur the imagination of the public, connecting them directly to the amazing discoveries happening in space, and it would help drive funds to underfunded research projects.
And that would be a good thing.
Note: You can also visit a non-profit adopt-a-star program that supports Kepler research called the Pale Blue Dot Adopt-A-Star project!