Originally on the web as:

http://www.space.com/spacewatch/mystery_monday_030915.html

Name a Star? The Truth about Buying Your Place in Heaven
By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
posted: 05:59 am ET
15 September 2003

 

The pitch is tempting: Name a star after yourself or a loved one. Aunt Martha will twinkle for eternity, winging through the Milky Way on a parchment certificate and a prayer.

Hundreds of thousands of folks have taken the sales pitch at face value. Others know the truth, and some still buy in. But there is a lot of confusion. One SPACE.com reader recently asked, "Who gave them the right to name stars? And then charge someone for the name?"

The answer is simple: Nobody gave them the right. They just do it.

At least half a dozen companies are offering to attach names to stars while making the designations seem official, providing a fancy certificate and directions for locating the newly named point of light. Their promotional strategies range from harmlessly playful to bordering on fraudulent. Meanwhile the night sky is being populated with unofficial names, at $49.95 a pop, one unsuspecting buyer at a time.

What you really get

It's not hard to grasp the romantic or otherwise wondrous reasons someone might have for buying a star name, especially as a gift. It's also important for potential buyers to know what they'd actually get.

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Pretty much nothing, beyond some very expensive paper.

Only the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has the right to officially name celestial objects. It does so for scientific purposes only and does not recognize any commercial naming systems. The IAU, viewed by astronomers as the reputable governing body, is well aware of the sea of commercial star vendors. It has this to say:

"The IAU dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of 'selling' fictitious star names."

Some folks wonder, understandably, why stars are not given names in lieu of boring numbers.

The IAU does recognize a handful of ancient star names, given to some of the brightest stars in our sky. But with millions and millions of stars out there, it wisely decided long ago that a numbering system is more useful for scientists.

As the IAU puts it, "Finding Maria Gonzalez in Argentina or John Smith in Britain just from their names is pretty hopeless, but if you know their precise address (perhaps from their social security number) you can contact them without knowing their name at all."

As a web site called Name a Star admits, "Scientists will never want to deal with finding 'Aunt Martha's Star.'" This company deserves a gold star for forthrightness.

Others are not so straightforward.

Your official

Radio ads and Web promotions of star-naming businesses give the initial impression -- either implicit or explicit -- of being official.

A handful provide honest or partially honest statements as separate disclaimers (never on their home pages) or partway down a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Even these companies, however, work hard to help you place an order without ever learning the truth.

One company, called StarNamer, advertises with this misleading statement:

"Our Universal Star Catalog is comprised of a huge list of stars that includes their telescopic coordinates along with designation numbers. The Universal Star Catalog was created by the prestigious Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts."

The Universal Star Catalog was not created by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). The SAO did develop a catalogue of bright stars, some 30 years ago, and it is in the public domain. Star Namer may well have taken the database and renamed it. Admittedly a minor distinction, but one that sure makes the Universal Star Catalog sound official and could lead one to believe that the SAO is involved in or approves of your name being added to the list.

"We are not affiliated with any of the companies," that sell star names, said SAO public affairs specialist Christine Lafon. There's typically no legal recourse for the SAO to keep others from using its name, Lafon said, because of creative wording employed in the pitches.

Let's talk

StarNamer provides an 800 number (marked as being for orders only). I called anyway and asked if their catalog is official.

"As far as I know, yes sir," said the woman who answered. So I told her what I learned about the SAO. "We're just an answering service," she said.

Asked if there was someone available to answer questions, she said, "All the information is on the Web site," adding that I would have to fill out the e-mail form on the site if I had questions.

A thorough combing of the Web site revealed no admission of the unofficial nature of naming stars. Buried low in StarNamer's FAQ is this tiny hint at the truth: "Naming a star is a symbolic gesture."

I filled out the e-mail form, checked the "emergency" box they provide for important queries, selected "sales department" for its routing, and requesting an explanation within 24 hours. They did not write back. A second e-mail to the "Misc. Service Request" heading, letting them know the deadline for this story was fast approaching, also received no response other than an auto-reply noting the request had been received.

When pressed

Another seller, called Star Deed, also makes virtually no effort on its Web site to clarify that it is not official, other than noting that you would be buying a "a singular and exclusive novelty gift." It lists no phone number.

So I e-mailed and asked this: "Your web site does not say if the star name would be official. Would it be? Does the International Astronomical Union recognize the names you issue?"

Elizabeth from Star Deed client relations wrote back. She did not answer my question. She did say, amid a sales pitch, that "Star Deed, and any other star naming service, is a novelty item."

The customer, it seems, is charged with understanding that "novelty" means "unofficial."

I wrote back to Elizabeth and made it clear that I was writing a story about this and that I needed some answers. Her response:

"As mentioned in my previous email, Star Deed is a novelty gift; the IAU does not recognize the names. None of the companies that name stars are 'official,' because the IAU doesn't recognize such star names. We are the only company that I know of that actually admits that it is a novelty gift."

Some truth, finally, except Elizabeth is totally wrong in that last statement. Many of the companies use "novelty" as a crutch. And some of them rely on customers who don't make their livings by writing multiple pesky e-mails.

The recurring scheme sounds a bit like selling a chunk of petrified wood made of plastic, and covering your tracks by calling it a novelty item. If you like that sort of thing, then go ahead and fuel the economy. If you just can't resist the romanticism, or if you think it might encourage the gift's recipient to go out, look up and explore the night sky, then who am I to argue?

And even if it's not official, at least Aunt Martha's star will be unique, right? Wrong. Other companies are free to apply someone else's name to your star.

Coming clean

Not all the star namers work so hard at hiding reality.

The International Star Registry's Web site is among the most forthright. It does, however, advertise that "Because these star names are copyrighted with their telescopic coordinates in the book, 'Your Place in the Cosmos,' future generations may identify the star name in the directory and, using a telescope, locate the actual star in the sky."

The latest edition of 'Your Place in the Cosmos' (Volume VI) will shortly be registered in the U.S. Copyright Office, the company notes. It will set your admiring descendents back $44.95, not counting inflation. It's doubtful they'll get a deal on Amazon, which does not list the title.

As for the copyright issue, what book isn't copyrighted? The story you're reading is copyrighted. Anyone who knows how to generate the character from a keyboard can copyright something. And anyway, it's not often Judge Judy hears someone say, "Hey pal, that's my wife's star!"

Nonetheless, the promotional effort has worked more than 500,000 times at just this one company.

The International Star Registry has an 800 number, too, so I called. Jessica answered the phone and was polite, helpful and made no effort to sell. I told her I was thinking about naming a star for my son and asked if the star would be recognized by some official body.

"No," Jessica said. "We're just a private company. It's just a novelty gift."

Refreshingly honest, and clear as the stars in the sky. A gold star for Jessica, too.

In this spirit of disclosure, I should mention that some companies provide star charts or other potentially useful guides as part of the package. Prices at some outfits are as low as $25. Consider that for this much money, though, you could buy a comprehensive star chart and a great astronomy book loaded with real, official star names.

Nonetheless, the prospect of shining for infinity is attractive. Even to stars.

The International Star Registry counts among its clients Nicole Kidman (a gift for Tom Cruise), Martin Short and Brooke Shields. Citizens of Daytona Beach named stars for each of the astronauts killed in the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, the company says.

For $54, plus shipping and handling, the company will send out a parchment certificate, an "informative booklet" explaining constellations, plus a chart with the newly named star circled in red. For $139 you can get some of these things framed and they'll send a letter of congratulations to the recipient.

Alternately, from another star-naming vendor, you can chose to immortalize your loved one in stellar fashion on embossed on wood. Not petrified or plastic, but real wood.

Further reading