This is the "Buying a Star" FAQ (Frequently Asked Question list) from the sci.astro.amateur newsgroup.
This FAQ text is NOT copyrighted! It is public domain. Please distribute far and wide. If you distribute the FAQ in print form, please retain the authorship information.
(1) Can I Buy or Name a Star?
Can I buy a star, or have one named?
But I heard there were organizations that would do this for you. Isn't that true?
There are organizations that will take your money and send you a certificate, but those documents have no validity and are not recognized by anyone else. There are at least a half-dozen companies or individuals who claim the ability to name stars. However, no private company has ever been granted the authority to name stars by any government, professional astronomical organization, or international treaty.
But the company says that these stars are "officially registered" or "copyrighted" (with the Library of Congress or the U.S. Patent Office). Doesn't that make them legitimate or official?
"Officially registered" can simply mean "registered with the star-naming company." This does not mean that anyone outside of the company will accept the list of stars and their "names" as valid. "Official" is a word without much meaning under the law, and thus can be used very loosely.
A copyright can be obtained for one's grocery list. A lot of printed material is copyrighted each year, not all of it accurate or true. In any event, the Library of Congress and the U.S. Patent Office do not have the authority to name stars, and therefore cannot confer such authority onto any private business or person. Some companies strongly imply that they have such authority without actually saying it in so many words. Fancy graphics, claims of a special "vault in Switzerland," celebrity "endorsements" and other techniques are sometimes used to create this impression. Read very carefully what they promise (or more importantly, what they do not promise).
Also, the people of the United States makes up less than 5% of the world population. It's arrogant and ethnocentric to think that a private company based in America (or even the U.S. Government) can take upon themselves the right to name stars for the rest of the human race.
Bottom line: The International Astronomical Union is the only organization with the ability to name anything in the sky. It is part of their official function. They get this right from international scientific consensus and the mutual ascent of astronomers from everywhere in the world. No private company has ever been given such authority. The IAU does not name stars after people.
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(2) What do you get for your money?
What do you get for your money?
Essentially, you get a colorful certificate and a sky chart showing a tiny portion of the sky. For an additional (usually large) fee, you can sometimes buy a copy of a book, self-published by the company, which lists all the names of the people who have given them money.
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(3) How can I see the star I named?
I just named a star or received one as a gift and I'd like to see it. How do I find it?
Seeing the star will be very difficult.
The stars "named" by these companies are almost never visible to the unaided eye. They can be very hard to find, even with a large, computer controlled telescope used at a nice dark location. Celestial coordinates are usually included, but are often inaccurate or not specific enough. The star charts provided for the customer are sometimes just photocopies from a book, with a black dot circled in red. Often the dot is hand-drawn on the map (making the problem of positional error nearly impossible to overcome). For these reasons it is very unlikely that you will ever see the star you "named".
Understand that no planetarium, observatory, university, or astronomer is obligated to show the star to you. They don't get any of the money, after all. If you should find someone willing to try to show it to you, be aware that this person is doing you a big favor.
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(4) Will astronomers ever refer to my star by the name I give it?
Will astronomers ever refer to my star by the name I gave it?
The vast majority of stars simply have catalog numbers, and always will. Astronomers (both professional and amateur) use these numbers because they are easy to look up in databases or catalogs. There is simply no good reason to name a star so faint it cannot be seen (unless it has very special properties).
The companies that "name" stars do not distribute copies of their books or lists to observatories or universities, so how would an astronomer ever know about the name you gave it? Even if astronomers did get copies of these lists, they would ignore them.
Finally, there is nothing to keep different companies from "naming" the same star after different people. Indeed, one particular star selling company on the world wide web states up front that they sell naming rights to stars without checking to see if another company has already sold them. In this case, which names should the astronomer use?
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(5) How do things in the sky get their names?
You say that I can't name a star, but many things in the sky already have names. How do they get those names?
The names of astronomical objects are determined by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Usually, the only time an object is named after a living person is when that person (or persons) discover the object (e.g. Comet Levy was discovered by David Levy, Barnard's Star was discovered by E.E. Barnard, etc.).
Planetary names come from Roman mythology. This also holds true in the case of planetary moons, although many of the moons of Uranus were named after characters from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night's Dream." These names are approved by the IAU.
Star names come to us via historical convention. Most of the stars that have individual names were named thousands of years ago and were first cataloged by Ptolomey in ancient Egypt. The names come from folklore, mythology and location (such as Polaris). All stars are also given a numerical designation based on the constellation in which they're found and their relative brightness. The brightest are given a Greek letter designation followed by the name of the constellation such as Alpha Centauri, Sigma Draconis, etc. After the last letter of the Greek alphabet (omega) is used, the remaining stars are given numerical designations followed by the constellation name such as 51 Pegasi, 38 Ursa Majoris, etc.
Craters and planetary feature names can have various origins. For example, the IAU has asked that the names of famous women (particularly in the sciences) be submitted for naming features on the surface of Venus that have recently been revealed by the Magellan probe.
The discoverers of numbered minor planets (asteroids) have the traditional privilege of proposing a name for their discoveries. Asteroids named after musicians Frank Zappa, Jerry Garcia and John Lennon were all named by sympathetic discoverers. The IAU retains veto power over inappropriate names.
Comets are named after the person or persons who discover them first. Example: Comet Hale-Bopp was discovered at the same time by Mr. Hale and Mr. Bopp. There are a few exceptions to this, like in the case of Halley's Comet (Halley didn't discover it, he just predicted when it would appear again, which verified Newton's laws of Motion).
Objects that were named prior to the formation of the IAU still retain their names.
For more information on this function of the IAU, see the Royal Greenwich Observatory leaflet, "The Naming of Stars" at: http://www.rog.nmm.ac.uk/leaflets/name/name.html
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(6) Come on! Why can't we do this, just for fun?
Come on! Why can't we do this, just for fun?
It's your money. Just understand that you will be paying for a "novelty" item that has no validity within the scientific community.
Still, if it is "just for fun", you might as well save money and print out your own certificate. It will be just as valid. All you need is a printer and some nice paper.
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(7) What else can I do?
So what else can I do? I want to (a): do something special and romantic for my significant other, or (b): help myself and/or others deal with the untimely death of a loved one.
(a): Flowers are romantic. So are chocolates (and they taste better than that silly certificate would). Wine, a fine meal, a stay in a fancy hotel, any of these would do nicely also. Truly, it is as they say, "the thought that counts".
(b): Again, this is a difficult case. One might suggest (for example) a donation to an organization like the American Cancer Society (if the child died of cancer), or M.A.D.D. (if the child died in a car accident). Also, many public institutions like observatories, zoos, and museums have fund raising opportunities where you can make a donation in someone else's name. That person is then honored with a plaque on the wall or an engraved paving brick in a walkway. The advantage here is that your money goes to a good cause which will be of benefit to everyone. In addition, it's a lot easier for the family to go see their loved one's memorial brick than it is to see one of those extremely faint stars.
If you feel you need to buy something astronomical for yourself or a friend, get a subscription to one of the astronomy magazines like "Astronomy" or "Sky and Telescope," a book, a planisphere or tickets to a planetarium show. In this manner, you can connect with the universe of astronomy and get some value for your money.
Other gift ideas:
Membership in the International Dark-Sky Association
Membership in a local astronomy club, planetarium, or observatory
Astronomy computer programs
A pair of binoculars
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(8) How can I contact a star selling company?
I still want to do this. Can you give me names, addresses, and/or phone numbers of some star selling companies so I can contact them?
Sorry, no. This FAQ is intended to help the public make an informed choice. It isn't here to promote or assist the star-naming "industry". Also, to name any specific companies here would be to risk a lawsuit from them (seriously).
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(9) Why do astronomers seem to get so upset about all this?
Why do astronomers get upset by this?
Not all astronomers do.
Many feel that this is a simple case of "buyer beware," that consumers need to think carefully about all of their purchases to avoid being taken advantage of. Others strongly believe that star-naming is fraud or (at the very least) deceptive and morally wrong (depending on the specific star-naming company and the information presented in their advertisements). Still others take a middle view, seeing this as a problem, but a small one in the grand scheme of things and not worth getting worked up over.
Opinions run from the indifferent to the indignant. Probably the best that one can say about private companies naming stars is that it falls into a "gray area" of the law. Bottom line, remember, is that no private company or individual has ever been given the authority to name stars.
Who is really hurt by this?
That depends a lot on what you consider to be harm. The money involved in any given "sale" is generally between $20 and $100. Some people do not think that this is enough money to be really harmful. Others disagree and believe that as long as the consumer thinks he is really naming a star, he has been deceived and that this deceit has caused harm. It is also very difficult to put a dollar amount on the emotional suffering of a person who discovers that the "memorial star" supposedly named for a beloved relative was, in fact, not really named.
Whatever one thinks about the amount money involved, this practice can cause problems for those who do not share in the profits.
Most observatories and planetaria, for example, get calls or visits from people wanting to see the star they "named". Of course, the institution could refuse to help them and just tell the truth, ("Sorry, this certificate is in no way valid. No private company has the authority to name stars.") but what if the star was "named" for a dead child? Suddenly, one is placed in the position of either telling them the truth and breaking their hearts, or going along with their request, showing them the star, not saying anything, and becoming silent partners with the star-namers. Many see this as an ethical dilemma. It can be quite upsetting to the astronomer who has to deal with it.
Sometimes the people who pay to have a star "named" think that astronomers or planetarians are somehow obligated to show them these stars, and become angry if they cannot be found. After all, if the star name is really "official," then the astronomer should be able to show it to you, right? Then one is placed in a different sort of uncomfortable situation. Sometimes nothing can be said or done to mollify such a deceived individual. See this personal website for one such story.
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(10) So What Are You Doing About It?
Why do astronomers allow star-naming to continue?
That's a fair question.
Although many people believe that this practice amounts to fraud, there are no specific laws against selling the "right" to "name" stars. Therefore, it would be very difficult to force the companies involved to stop. Astronomers are not police officers or prosecutors, and thus do not have the authority to issue "cease and desist" orders.
There are various government organizations with the mandate to protect consumers. The Federal Trade Commission is one. Every state has an Attorney General, and many states and cities have Consumer Affairs departments. These organizations could do something, but it appears that for the time being star-naming is not seen as a serious enough problem for much action to be taken. Only if a lot of people complain will these organizations investigate.
What we *ARE* doing is Informing the public of the truth. As long as everyone knows that you cannot REALLY name a star, and that the certificate you receive is just a piece of paper, we will be happy. The bottom line is allowing all consumers to make an informed choice. Many astronomers and astronomical organizations have web sites devoted to this issue.
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(11) Additional Information
International Astronomical Union Official Statement
The IAU is the ONLY organization with the authority to name anything in the sky. This authority was given to them by international treaty. Their statement about the "naming" of stars is clear, to the point, and can be found at:
IPS Official Statement
The International Planetarium Society is a group of planeraria and professional astronomy educators from around the world. They have an excellent OFFICIAL STATEMENT ON STAR NAMING at:
Royan Greenwich Observatory
The Royal Greenwich Observatory leaflet, "The Naming of Stars" is at: http://www.rog.nmm.ac.uk/leaflets/name/name.html
A Star Naming Company is issued a Violation
In May of 1998, a star-naming company was issued a violation by the city of New York for Deceptive Trade Practices. Read about it at the NYC Consumer Affairs Office Web Site!
Star Namers Turn on One Another
In October of 1999, a star-naming company filed suit in Illinois Federal Court against another star-naming company. Read about it at the Boston Globe web site. You'll have to pay a dollar or two for the article, but it's worth a read (especially if you enjoy irony).
Do a key word search for "New Round of Star Wars" (the title of the article, published 5/1/2000).
A Personal Story
Jim Craig, one of the authors of this FAQ, has a personal story about his experience with someone who "named" a star, thinking it was legitimate. A classic example of one of the problems caused by this practice.
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(12) About this FAQ
The information in this FAQ was written by Bill McClain (firstname.lastname@example.org), Jim Craig (email@example.com), and Bob Martino (firstname.lastname@example.org). It was updated and edited for the year 2000 (not yet the new millennium) by Bob Martino. Jim Craig is the current official keeper of the FAQ.
The information in this FAQ is presented so that the public will have the knowledge needed to make an informed choice. We have tried to present the facts clearly. Where we have presented our opinions about the facts, it should be clear that this is what we are doing. We've also tried to present a balanced view. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of our employers. We claim full protection under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States as we speak out about this practice. Read it at: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/const/bor.html
This FAQ is NOT copyrighted! It is public domain. Please distribute far and wide. All I ask is that if you use it on your web site, you link to the official site named above. If you distribute it in print form, please retain the authorship information as well.
(Updated October 2000)
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