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Can you really purchase and name a star?

This NASA graphic offers an introduction to the constellations visible in the Northern Hemisphere.
This NASA graphic offers an introduction to the constellations visible in the Northern Hemisphere. (Image credit: NASA )

Some companies make money out of 'selling stars', or rather selling opportunities to name them, perhaps as a gift to a loved one. But is it really worth the money?

If you have ever considered "purchasing" a star for the purpose of attaching your name or the name of a friend or relative to it, then you should read this before you decide to make the purchase. 

Some commercial companies purport to allow you to name a star. Usually, for a few tens of dollars, they'll send you a fancy looking certificate and a chart from a star atlas showing the precise position of "your" star. 

The only problem is that the star name that you purchased amounts to nothing more than a novelty; for your moniker is not officially recognized by any reputable astronomical or scientific institution.

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

Related: Night sky: What you can see this month [maps]

For many years, I served as the question-and-answer man at New York's Hayden Planetarium and over a roughly 20-year time span I probably answered literally thousands of questions about astronomy and its affiliated sciences. But whenever we got close to a holiday, the questions regarding the purchase of a star always precipitously increased. 

Many would inquire if we could use our Zeiss planetarium projector to show them "their star."

Others wanted to know if they could buy a star directly through us, or might we suggest a company where they could make such a purchase? 

My answer to all three such inquiries was a most definite NO! 

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has their own take on this subject for those who desire to buy a star.

"Some commercial enterprises purport to offer such services for a fee," the IAU explains on its website (opens in new tab). "However, such 'names' have no formal or official validity whatsoever. Similar rules on "buying" names apply to star clusters and galaxies as well."

But then again . . . there are ways to get around this, as a couple of 19th century Sicilian astronomers, and a well-known 20th century astronaut quietly demonstrated.  

Hidden monikers in reverse

First let's deal with those Sicilian astronomers: 

As we get ready to transition from winter to spring, one of the smallest constellations is visible at the first light of dawn, about halfway up in the eastern sky: 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.

The constellation looks like a small diamond with perhaps one or two stars below it. 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 enigmatic names: Sualocin (Alpha Delphini) and Rotanev (Beta Delphini). These names first appeared in the Palermo Star Catalog, published in 1814 by Giuseppe Piazzi, the director of the Palermo Observatory, and his assistant Niccolo Cacciatore. 

Eventually, those names found their way into numerous other star charts and atlases, but nobody seemed to have a clue as to their origin. 

In 1859, the English astronomer Thomas Webb (1807-1885) solved the mystery by reversing their letters, revealing the name of Nicolaus Venator, the Latinized form of Niccolo Cacciatore. But to this day nobody knows for sure whether it was Piazzi or Cacciatore himself who ultimately christened these two stars. 

One thing that we do know: Cacciatore didn't pay a cent to have his monikers immortalized in the nighttime sky!

A joke that proliferated

Then there are the three stars with names which, transposed, once referred to three American astronauts.

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, astronauts had to periodically recalibrate the system by sighting on known stars. There were 37 stars they used.

In 1966, astronauts Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Edward White were named to be the crew on the very first manned Apollo flight (Apollo 1). About this same time, Dr. Clarence H. Cleminshaw (1902-1985), who at that time served as the director of Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory, approached Grissom and told him he planned to write a short article on the Apollo navigational stars for the observatory's magazine, Griffith Observer, and asked for a listing of the 37 star names. Grissom passed along the list (including the three bogus star names) to Cleminshaw. The list was subsequently published in the Griffith Observer which was — and still is — considered to be a reputable astronomical publication. 

A sad memorial  

So, what were the three names?

"Dnoces" (which was really the star Iota Ursae Majoris or Talitha), "Navi" (the star Epsilon Cassiopeiae or Segin) and Regor ( the star Gamma Velorum or Suhail).

As it turns out, Dnoces is the word "second" spelled backwards, a reference to the ordinal number often appended to Astronaut Edward White, II (who coincidentally, 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. 

In later missions, these three maverick stars amazingly 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. In fact, from 1968 until 1993, these three stars could be found on the monthly star charts published in the centerfold of Sky & Telescope magazine. 

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 men perished in a fire that enveloped the Apollo 1 command module 55 years ago, on Jan. 27, 1967.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Joe Rao
Joe Rao

Joe Rao is Space.com's skywatching columnist, as well as a veteran meteorologist and eclipse chaser who also serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications. Joe is an 8-time Emmy-nominated meteorologist who served the Putnam Valley region of New York for over 21 years. You can find him on Twitter and YouTube tracking lunar and solar eclipses, meteor showers and more. To find out Joe's latest project, visit him on Twitter.