Monday, May 24, 2010

A star by any other name...

I've had multiple people ask me about the legitimacy of getting a star named after them or their loved ones. There are several private organizations out there which are more than willing to let you give them money in exchange for just such a commodity, but buyer beware.

In truth, such organizations are usually not outright scams. They generally claim that, for a price, your named star will be placed in a special star catalog which their organization administers. In that sense, they are completely honest.

That said, though, no astronomer is ever going to actually access such a catalog to find a star name, much less turn to their fellow astronomer and declare, "I'm going to use the telescope to observe Todd Jenkins, Jr. tonight. It's an exciting, magnetically variable A-type star in Draco." Some of the less scrupulous star-naming corporations may give you the illusion that astronomers are using the name of your star in the scientific community, but don't be fooled.

Rather, the official, astronomically-recognized names generally come from the International Astronomical Union (the IAU, the same folks who gave Pluto the shaft). The very brightest stars in the sky do have official names: Vega, Arcturus, Fomalhaut, and Capella, just to name a few. Most of these named stars have had their monikers passed down to us from the ancient Arabic astronomers - who kept astronomy thriving as Rome fell - though a few still maintain their much older Babylonian names.

Get past the first few hundred brightest stars, and they begin to take on some less exciting names. Around 1600, Johann Bayer took it upon himself to begin naming stars in a more orderly fashion, such that "Alpha" generally denotes the brightest star in a constellation, "Beta" the second brightest, and so on through the Greek alphabet. Naturally, there are repeats for the brightest stars: Alpha Scorpii, the brightest star in Scorpius, is better known as simply "Antares".

Around 1700, Flamsteed took this one step further. He designated stars simply by number in order of West-to-East, and named stars significantly fainter than the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet would allow. Thus, "1 Geminorum" is the most Western star - and approximately the first to rise over the Eastern horizon - in the constellation of Gemini. The 34th most westerly star in Taurus is just "34 Tauri" (bonus points to anyone who knows why this one is special).

After the first few thousand stars, though, the names suddenly become much less interesting. As the limit of naked-eye visibility is reached, telescopes start becoming necessary to see more stars. Large observing campaigns were carried out to catalog and precisely locate ever-dimmer stars, leaving us with decidedly unsexy names such as " HD 209458" or " SAO 151881" (more bonus points to anyone who knows why those stars are special).

There are still a few interesting names in the mix even for these very dim ones, often named after a given astronomer who studied it, such as Barnard's Star and Kapteyn's Star. For the most part, though, it's a desert of notable names.

Now, for comets your prospects are significantly better for getting something actually named after you which the scientific community will recognize. Tradition generally holds that comets are named after their discoverer. Thus, Comet Hale-Bopp was named after its co-discoverers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp.

However, things have been getting a little dicey for comet hunters as automated robotic surveys find more comets than individuals lately. This has led to several comets all being named "Comet LINEAR" (for the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research program), "Comet NEAT" (for the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program), and "Comet LINEAR-NEAT".

Currently, your best prospects for getting something up in the sky named after you lie with the minor planets, i.e. the asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Tradition holds that newly discovered minor planets need not merely be named after the discoverer, but that the discoverer may actually choose the name. Originally minor planet names followed the same naming convention as planets:

- (1) Ceres
- (2) Pallas
- (3) Juno
- (4) Vesta

These names are all based in Greco-Roman mythology, while the number preceding them indicates the order in which these objects were discovered. As the number of asteroids began to get into the thousands, novel mythological names were running scarce, leading astronomers to use the names of other famous scientists:

- (2001) Einstein
- (4987) Flamsteed
- (6143) Pythagoras
- (8000) Isaac Newton

Artists, philosophers, and various historical people were also allowed membership into the elite club:

- (4511) Rembrandt
- (5102) Benfranklin
- (5676) Voltaire

As the number of minor planets has now topped the hundreds of thousands, though, even that scheme has worn thin, leading to some fairly creative names over the years:

- (3568) ASCII
- (9007) James Bond
- (13681) Monty Python
- (19383) Rolling Stones
- (82332) Las Vegas

Perhaps most depressing, though, quietly tucked away in the mid 100,000's, you'll find an inconspicuous member deprived of its former glory:

- (134340) Pluto

A moment of silence, friends.

Point being, if you look at the full list, it's a virtual cornucopia of names. My advice: make friends with an astronomer who discovers asteroids.

1 comment:

  1. Hollywood has glamourized this idea oh so much, thank you for putting a true world spin in perspective.