Though it's impossible to own a star, now you can adopt one.
A new program offers people a chance to "adopt" one of the stars in a catalogue of targets where scientists hope to find Earth-like extrasolar planets.
For $10, members of the public can select a star to adopt from the catalogue, and receive an e-mail certificate and updates if any planets are discovered around their star. All the money raised goes toward funding scientific research on the stars.
The stars up for adoption are targets for NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which launched in March on a quest to search for small terrestrial planets in roughly one-year orbits around other stars. These kinds of planets may be our best chance at finding habitable worlds beyond the solar system.
The adopt-a-star program, called the Pale Blue Dot project, is run by a non-profit organization that is not affiliated with or endorsed by NASA. So far, Pale Blue Dot has raised about $10,000 to fund the Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium, a project to measure the absolute sizes of the stars on Kepler's target list. This endeavor is separate from Kepler's main mission to hunt for planets, and is not covered by the mission's $600 million NASA budget.
"The method that Kepler uses to detect planets around other stars only tells you the size of the planet compared to star," said Travis Metcalfe, an astronomer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado who leads the adoption project. "Our group measures the size of the star."
Using data from Kepler as well as ground-based telescopes, the consortium plans to analyze small oscillations in the stars' light to determine the stars' densities, masses and radii. The astronomers can use this information to calculate the absolute sizes of any planets around the stars, as well as the stars' ages, chemical compositions and rotation rates.
"We are a group of international collaborators who are contributing to the Kepler mission, but we're not funded by NASA," Metcalfe told SPACE.com. "The Pale Blue Dot project is part fund-raising, part educational outreach."
When someone adopts a star, it is tagged with the sponsor's name, both in Google Sky and in a text version of the catalog. The program makes sure that no two people can adopt the same star.
"We wanted to distinguish ourselves from the phony name-a-star companies," Metcalfe said. "We also wanted to undercut their prices."
Many companies claim to sell a chance to name a star, but these are gimmicks. Only the International Astronomical Union (IAU) can bestow official names on celestial objects, and most stars only get numbers, not names. Those naming rights are not sold.
A NASA statement further clarifies, "Any names given to stars through this venture (or planets found) will NOT be recognized either by NASA, the Kepler project or the International Astronomical Union."
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