Look, Up in the Sky! Strange Star Names

If you have ever considered "purchasing" a star for the purpose if attaching your name or the name of a friend or relative to it, the following tale is for you.

Some commercial companies purport to allow you to name a star. Typically, for a fee, they'll send you a nice certificate and a chart from a star atlas showing the position of "your" star. The only problem is that the star name that you purchased amounts to nothing more than a novelty and is not officially recognized by any reputable astronomical or scientific institution.

Admittedly, the name might exist in the ledger of the company that sent you that nice certificate, but if you named a star for, say, your Aunt Martha, don't bother visiting your local observatory and ask to have them show it to you; so far as they're concerned "Aunt Martha's Star" doesn't exist.

But then again, there are ways to get around this, as a couple of Sicilian astronomers proved almost two centuries ago.

Sualocin and Rotanev

One of the smallest constellations is reaching its highest point in the southern sky at around midnight local daylight time this week: Delphinus, the Dolphin. It certainly attracted the attention of ancient watchers of the sky, for despite its tiny size and the fact that it only consists of faint stars, they're very closely spaced and easily seen on dark, clear nights.

Here you will find a small diamond with perhaps one or two stars below it. There is something especially cute about it, positioned out in the dark just east of the bright summer Milky Way.

Some reference books refer to the diamond as "Job's Coffin" though the origin of this name is unknown. Two stars in the Delphinus diamond have rather odd names: Sualocin (Alpha Delphini) and Rotanev (Beta Delphini).

They first appeared in the Palermo Star Catalogue in 1814, but nobody seemed to have a clue as to their origin. The English astronomer Thomas Webb finally solved the mystery by reversing their letters, revealing the name of Nicolaus Venator, the Latinized form of Niccolo Cacciatore, the valued assistant and eventual successor of Palermo Observatory's director Giuseppe Piazzi. But to this day nobody knows for sure whether it was Piazzi or Cacciatore himself who ultimately christened these two stars.

Enter Derf and Bob!

During the 1960s and 70s, one of the most popular people ever to lecture at New York's Hayden Planetarium was Dr. Fred Hess (1920-2007), affectionately known to many in the New York metro area as the "Elmer Gantry of astronomy." Whenever he gave a tour of the summer night sky, Dr. Hess would entertain his audiences by telling the story of Sualocin and Rotanev. He then would embellish the tale by stating that he was always jealous of Cacciatore and decided on his own — in tongue in cheek fashion — to name the two other stars in the Delphinus diamond.

For the star Gamma Delphini, he assigned the name "Derf," which is "Fred" spelled backwards. And since the well-known astrophotographer Robert Little was one of his best friends, Dr. Hess referred to the star formally known as Eta Delphini as "Bob," which was "Bob" (a palindrome) spelled backwards!

Of course, the "Derf and Bob" monikers rarely got much beyond the confines of the Hayden Space Theater. But it was much different story in the late 1960s when, during NASA's Apollo program, three reversed names which started out as a prank were unknowingly assigned to three stars.

And then came Dnoces, Navi and Regor

The Apollo spacecraft that took men to the moon were designed to operate under inertial guidance, with gyroscopes keeping them pointed in the right direction. But because the gyroscopes tended to drift, the Apollo astronauts had to periodically recalibrate the system by sighting on known stars. There were 37 in all.

Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Edward White were to be the crew members on the very first Apollo flight. While training in celestial navigation however, Grissom, as a practical joke, quietly incorporated three new names onto NASA's star list: Dnoces (which was really Iota Ursae Majoris or Talitha), Navi (Epsilon Cassiopeiae) and Regor (Gamma Velorum or Suhail).

In later missions, these three maverick stars were accorded the same respect as celebrated ones like Sirius, Vega and Aldebaran. They even turned up on some official star maps that were published during the late 1960s and 1970s.

But what did they stand for?

As it turns out, Dnoces is the word "second" spelled backwards, a reference to Astronaut White (Edward White, II, who was also the second man to walk in space). Navi was Grissom's middle name (Ivan) spelled backward, and Regor was Chaffee's first name in reverse.

Today, the names are classified by most reference sources as "disused or never really used." Sadly, Grissom had no idea that his celestial jest would turn into a memorial to himself and his crewmates. All three perished in a fire that enveloped the Apollo command module on January 27, 1967.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.