How are Stars Named?

The naming of stars has evolved historically. Several early civilizations were very aware and interested in celestial objects, phenomena, and events. The Greeks, Romans, and early Arabs were prolific “namers” of stars. For example, Betelgeuse (pronounced like “beetle juice”), a bright star in the constellation Orion, gets its name from the Arabic word for “shoulder of the giant”. Not surprisingly you will find this star in the arm of Orion. The star Sirius, in Canis Major, is named for a Greek god. Some stars also have nicknames. Sirius is also known as the Dog Star.

If you look at a chart of stars, you may notice that many stars have Arabic names. In the 700’s and 800’s C.E., there was a rich history of astronomy in the Middle East. Astronomers in this part of the world catalogued the works of Roman and Greek astronomers and contributed their own knowledge. They often named stars based on their locations within constellations. This would explain Betelgeuse’s name as well as Rigel, located at the foot of Orion, which gets its name from the Arabic word for foot. Many of those names were adopted by later astronomers and remain to this day.

As far as recently named stars and other celestial objects, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is responsible for naming them. There are several catalog methods currently used to identify stars. One of the more common methods is the Bayer designation. In this catalog, stars are named according to their relative brightness within their constellation. The brightest star in the constellation is known as Alpha, the second is known as Beta, and so on. Many people are familiar with the star Alpha Centauri. It is so named because it is the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus. This star is actually a multi-star system that includes Beta Centauri and Proxima Centauri. This star system is actually the closest to our Solar System and is the object of many sci-movies and TV series. Another system of naming stars was introduced by John Flamsteed in the 1600s. Stars are designated by their Right Ascension coordinates within a constellation.

This brings us to the issue of paying a company to name a star after you or someone you know. Depending on the company, you may receive a star map giving the coordinates of the star in Declination and Right Ascension as well as an “official” certificate. Having a star named after someone you know is a thoughtful gesture. You can even get a star named after you. But it really is not official, and the name is simply registered in the company catalog and nowhere else. In other words, you will never hear of a star named “John Smith” in any astronomical study or reference.

Star naming has a rich history dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. There is no singular way to name stars. Even though the IAU is generally recognized as the authority for assigning designations for celestial objects, depending on the purpose of scientific studies, several different designations may be used. The organization is not without controversy, however. In 2006, the IAU voted to downgrade Pluto from the 9th planet of our solar system to a dwarf planet. This did not sit well with everyone around the scientific community as well as the general community. Sadly (depending on your perspective), the downgrading of Pluto remains.

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