Buying Stars and Star Names

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Introduction

The IAU frequently receives requests from individuals who want to buy stars or name stars (or any other astronomical object). Some commercial enterprises purport to offer such services for a fee. However, such "names" have no formal or official validity whatsoever. 

Some bright stars have proper names, with mostly Arabic, Greek, or Latin etymologies (e.g., Vega), but otherwise, the vast majority of stars have alphanumeric designations — consisting of an acronym plus either an index number or celestial position (e.g. HR 7001, 2MASS J18365633+3847012). The IAU supports a Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) under Division C, which catalogues the names of stars from the world’s cultures and maintains a catalogue of approved and unique proper names (e.g., Sirius or Proxima Centauri). After undergoing an investigation of cultural star names from around the world, the WGSN may adopt “new” official IAU star names for those stars currently lacking official IAU names. This will help preserve astronomical heritage while providing new unique names for the international astronomical community. You can read more about the WGSN and their work on the IAU Theme Star Names page. Names for exoplanets and their host stars may also be approved by the IAU Executive Committee Working Group on the Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites, as was done in 2015 and 2019  for the NameExoWorlds contests, and by the IAU Executive Committee Working Group on Exoplanetary Systems Nomenclature for the 2022 NameExoWorlds contest.

As an international scientific organisation, the IAU dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of "selling" fictitious star names, surface feature names, or real estate on other planets or moons in the Solar System. Accordingly, the IAU does not maintain a list of the (several competing) businesses across the globe which claim to do so. Readers wanting to contact such enterprises, despite the explanations given below, should search commercial directories in their country of origin.

In the past, some such enterprises have suggested to customers that the IAU is somehow associated with, recognises, approves, or even actively collaborates in their business. The IAU wishes to make it totally clear that any such claim is patently false and unfounded. If you notice an illegal abuse of the IAU name, please inform us and provide appropriate documentation. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.

Like many of the best things in life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale — it is free for all to enjoy. Further, the night sky belongs to everyone. Those claiming to sell parts of it implicitly claim to own it; the IAU does not make any such presumption. While the “gift” of a star may open someone's eyes to the beauty of the night sky, or proceeds from “selling” star names might be used to benefit an important social programme, this does not justify deceiving people into believing that any part of the night sky can be bought, sold, or owned.

Nevertheless, the IAU continues to receive requests for naming stars regardless. You may contact public@oao.iau.org if you have more questions. Further informal/humorous explanations of some of the issues involved are offered in the section below.

FAQ

Q: Who is the International Astronomical Union (IAU)? By what authority does the IAU name astronomical objects?

A: The International Astronomical Union (IAU) was founded in 1919. Its mission is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects through international cooperation. Its individual members — structured in an Executive Committee, as well as Divisions, Commissions, and Working Groups — are professional astronomers from all over the world, at the PhD level and beyond, active in professional the research, communication, and education of astronomy. The IAU has 12446 Individual Members in 108 countries worldwide. There are 85 National Members represented by national science academies and/or national astronomical organisations. Those nations comprise three-quarters of the Earth’s population.

Since its inception, one of the IAU’s activities has been to standardise the nomenclature of celestial objects among the international astronomical community. Over the past century, various IAU working groups comprised of astronomers from around the world have standardised nomenclature for constellations, surface features on the Moon, planets, planetary satellites, small bodies, asteroids, and objects outside the Solar System. These efforts have stemmed from necessity, as sometimes designations or names have been ambiguous or confusing. Importantly, these efforts have not been commercial.

The names approved by the IAU represent the consensus of professional astronomers around the world and national science academies, who, as “Individual Members” and “National Members”, respectively, adhere to the guidelines of the International Astronomical Union. Every three years, the IAU General Assembly votes for members of the Executive Committee, which leads and organises the IAU’s activities. The Executive Committee will define terms and provide guidance on the direction of the IAU’s scientific bodies. For example, some IAU Working Groups carry out well-defined tasks on behalf of the IAU to name and document celestial objects (these tasks are spelt out in corresponding Terms of Reference, established by the Executive Committee).

Q:Why don't stars get real names instead of a string of numbers and letters?

A: The string of numbers and letters assigned to each astronomical object (including stars) is known as its scientific designation. The reason to give a celestial object a scientific designation is to facilitate locating, describing, and discussing it within the scientific community. Alphanumeric designations are usually sorted by position, which has historically made them easy to look up in catalogues that often contain millions of objects. Precise coordinates (positions in the sky), possibly found via a catalogue number, provide an exact identification. For small groups of well-known objects, names such as Vega or the Pleiades are acceptable. However, often in astronomy, we deal with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of objects at the same time. Scanning through catalogues with millions of stars is much more practical using scientific designations than it is with “normal” names.

Hundreds of stars have names for some cultural reasons (mythology, navigation, agricultural seasons, timekeeping, etc.) or scientific reasons (e.g., variability, proximity, unusual properties, exoplanet host star). The IAU has formally recognised a few hundred proper names for stars via the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) and some exoplanet host stars via the IAU competition, NameExoWorlds. The WGSN is also in the process of cataloguing the names of stars from cultures around the world. Some of these cultural names may eventually be approved as official IAU proper names for these stars. At this point, the focus of the WGSN’s activities is on the names of stars of historical, cultural, or astrophysical importance.

Q: Why is it important that the IAU keep track of all these names?

A: Names assigned by the IAU are recognised and used by scientists, space agencies, authors of astronomical literature, and other authorities worldwide. Whether observing stars and planets, launching space missions to them, or reporting about them in the news, people need to know exactly which location a particular name refers to. The names assigned by the IAU are the names used. 

Q: Does this mean that the IAU owns the stars, planets, and other celestial objects?

A: No. The IAU does not claim to own any celestial object or any part of the sky. Further, the United Nations has negotiated treaties for claims of property within the Solar System. Thus far, no international law has been passed which defines owning a piece of space or the objects within it. 

Q: What do you suggest we do for the people in our lives that love the stars?

A: There are many things you can do to foster someone’s love of astronomy or in remembrance of a loved one. For example, you could go to your nearest planetarium or local amateur or professional observatory. They are staffed with people who are similarly excited about astronomy and would likely love to have a conversation with you about your interests. They may also direct you to the local astronomy club or society, where enthusiasts will be happy to show you the real stars through their own telescopes. If you live in or close to an area with a dark sky, you could camp out and watch the stars. If you’re looking for a gift, books, field guides, and other astronomy-related items can often be found in planetarium or science museum gift shops.

Alternatively, you can now also explore the entire sky in the comfort of your own home: digital sky surveys are online, as well as sophisticated planetarium software (for example, see the WorldWideTelescope or Stellarium). This allows you to browse through many hundreds of millions of stars on your computer and explore the Universe from the comfort of your own home. 

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Acknowledgements

The FAQ was adapted from a text by former IAU General Secretary Johannes Andersen.