Your name in the stars ... or maybe not

Astronomers are terrible at names. It seems like every name we come up with, whether for the mind-blowingly huge and complex structures in the heavens, or our own telescopes, is either a statement of the obvious or a criminally boring catalog number.

Take our own solar system. There's a titanic storm system on Jupiter so large that three Earths would be engulfed in its shrieking winds. It has been blowing out of control for at least 400 years (since we humans invented the first telescope to see it). What did we call this dramatic, celestial wonder? The Great Red Spot.

Or what about the similar Earth-sized storm on Neptune, which, with winds clocked at almost 2,000 miles per hour, has the most violent weather ever observed? That would be the Great Dark Spot.

Under construction in Chile is a new observatory with four telescopes, each 25 feet across, that will be able to be combined into a single, giant instrument, enabling astronomers to see the first building blocks of galaxies billions of light years away, as well as pick out new planets orbiting other stars. This wonder has been christened the VLT, which stands for - I kid you not - the Very Large Telescope.

After I show people lovely pictures of colliding galaxies and newborn stars, they are justifiable angry when they ask what their names are, and I respond: "Well, this star here is HD149404, and I think that galaxy is NGC2207 and IC2163." Whatever happened to names like the Andromeda Galaxy, or the Magellanic Clouds? Why don't stars still have names like Sirius, Rigel, or Zubenalgenub?

The reason for stars and galaxies, at least, to have boring names is actually quite simple. After the advent of the telescope, there are simply too many stars to name. Even Galileo, when he first turned a crude spyglass to the Milky Way, was startled to find that the dim, white glow was actually made of thousands and thousands of tiny stars. Too many to count, let alone name.

Long ago, ancient astronomers named most of the brightest stars in the sky, the ones most easily seen with the naked eye. The Arab astronomers contributed the largest number of names, and in my opinion, most beautiful ones: Algol, Betelgeuse, Spica, Aldebarran, among others. Greek astronomers named some (Sirius), and Romans a few more (Regulus). But these days, who would have the time (or the desire), to try and name the hundreds of billions of stars just in our own galaxy? And there are billions of other galaxies. In the best scientific tradition, astronomers had to come up with a system to deal with the huge amount of data that confronted them.

These days, stars are designated by a number that functions much like a Social Security number. It's a convenient way to track down a specific star, out of the millions in the sky. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for the naming and cataloging of stars, has set up several easy-to-use numbering systems.

The letters at the beginning of a star's name (like HD149404), designate which catalog is being used, and the number identifies the individual stars. Even stars with ancient names have been assigned a number in the cataloging system. For example, one of the stars I study is HD36486. This star is easy to find in the night sky, as it's the lower, left-most star in the belt of Orion. The star has an Arabic name, Mintaka, and is also called Delta Orionis (delta, being the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet, indicates that this is the fourth brightest star in Orion). But by and large, astronomers refer to this star with its catalog number.

Now, you may have noticed that I have never mentioned astronomers referring to stars named after people, and this is important. Officially, The IAU does not recognize stars with personal names assigned to them. A number of well-meaning relatives have asked if they should purchase for me, as a gift, my very own star. There are several companies who, for a fee, will name a star after you. Apparently, you get a nice certificate and a star map showing the location of your very own star. This seems like a fitting gift for anyone interested in astronomy, and a romantic way of preserving your name for posterity. I'm sorry to say, however, that the only place your name will ever be recorded is on the sales list of the company that took your money. No scientists, foreign countries, or official authorities will ever be aware that you "bought" your star, or use your name in any way. It's a hoax - these companies have absolutely no connection with the IAU, nor with any other official astronomical institution. Star names simply are not for sale, nor are galaxies, star clusters, or real estate on the Moon or Mars.

In fact, the IAU has very specific rules about such things. The only objects that can be named after living people are comets or asteroids, which are often named after the people who discover them (like comet Shoemaker-Levy, which smashed into Jupiter in 1994). Objects on planets (like mountain ranges or craters) can only be named after people who have been dead at least three years, are not religious or military figures or political figures more recent than the 19th century.

The modern numbering systems used for stars and galaxies are unromantic, but they do make sense. I can't imagine that in billions of years, the real timescale of the stars, any human names will remain stamped on the infinite universe. The very act of naming stars at all is a quaint attempt to make ourselves feel comfortable in all this endless space. But the truth is that the universe belongs to each of us just as much as the next person. All the money in the world can't buy that.

Michelle Thaller is an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. A massive-star specialist by trade, she dedicates most of her time to education and public outreach.

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