Polaris, Sirius, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Vega – these are just some of the most famous stars in our sky, but how exactly did they get these names?
And how exactly are stars named?
According to astronomers, there are around 200 billion trillion stars in the universe – that’s a lot of stars! Is it actually possible to name them all?
While not every star may have a common name like Sirius or Polaris, but most have scientific names that are used by astronomers and scientists to identify certain stars in their studies.
We are going to look into this system and see all the ways stars get their various names.
The Ancient Names Of Stars
Stars have been observed for thousands of years, and each culture and country will have different common names passed down for centuries for each star. The same goes for planets – a lot of them were named years and years ago, some after mythological figures like gods or creatures.
Ancient cultures would see patterns in the formation of stars in the sky and called these constellations after figures from their own mythologies. Some of the most famous constellations include Orion the Hunter, named after a hero from Greek mythology. Other popular constellations include Cygnus the Swan, Delphinus the Dolphin, and Leo the Lion – all named and related to Greek mythology.
Eventually, the stars themselves would also gain names, mostly inspired from Greek mythology. For example, the constellation Leo contains the stars Regulus and Denebola, as well as a dozen other stars that were never given more common names as they were rarely discussed or referred to.
The names given to some of these individual stars were related to their constellation, while others were just named after people and mythical figures. Denebola means ‘the lion’s tail’ and is found at the bottom of the Leo constellation, hence the suitable name. Not all stars were given this privilege, but some were.
Overall, some stars have multiple names passed down through generations in multiple cultures across the world. These are now known as their ‘proper’ names.
The problem with this, however, was that a lot of stars now were known to different astronomers by different proper names.
This made keeping track of which star was which in papers and discussions tricky. For example, Sirius is the brightest star in our night sky but it is also known as the ‘Dog Star’. Both names refer to the same star – and there are probably many more!
Some stars even ended up sharing names, making the situation even more complicated.
And so, scientists stepped up and made a new system for naming stars so each one was uniquely known and could be referred to in the astronomy community.
Star Designations And Proper Names
Because some stars have multiple names, it made referring and naming new stars difficult. Eventually, astronomers started to notice and a decision was made in 2016 to start making a catalog of standardized names for stars. This was done by the International Astronomical Union.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is a professional organization with thousands of members all across the world. They organized another group in 2016 called Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) to begin approving batches of names for stars, planets and even satellites that would be stamped as the ‘official’ name.
When it came to stars, there were two main groups of names handed out by the IAU: proper names, and designations.
Proper names refer to the examples given further above – names like Sirius and Polaris were approved to be used by astronomers.
Some more well known stars ended up with more than one. For example, the scientific name for our closest star was given as ‘Sol’ but the IAU approved that astronomers could refer to the star as ‘the Sun’ or its equivalent in each language.
The IAU also gave each star its own designation – a name or code that was unique to itself so it could not be confused with another star.
Some designations went by the Bayer designations table from 1603 – where a star would first be listed by a lowercase letter of the Greek alphabet and followed by the Latin name of its constellation. The brighter the star, the higher up in the Greek alphabet its letter was.
For example, the brightest star in the Big Dipper constellation is known by its proper name of Dubhe but its star designation is Alpha Ursae Majoris. This is because the Latin name of the Big Dipper constellation is Ursa Major, and the star Dubhe is the brightest star of the constellation so it gets the highest letter in the Greek alphabet. This gives you the name Alpha Ursae Majoris!
Other ways to designate stars are a lot more complicated. Today, some are even generated by computers – this is how some stars end up with long and complicated names made mostly from random numbers or letters. An example of this is SCR 1845-6357 B – yes, that is the real designation of a real star!
While these names are nowhere near as romantic as names like Proxima Centauri, computer generated names help give each star its own unique label to stop it from being mixed up with other stars.
Selling Star Names
You may have heard of someone who had a star named after them as a gift. While this is a very thoughtful gift, it does give a lot of people the false impression that if you pay enough money, you can have a star named in your honor.
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Commercial star-naming companies like the International Star Registry (IRS) sell the right to unofficially name stars and these products are often used either as gifts or as a form of memorial.
However, these names are not recognized internationally. The IAU is the only internationally recognized body that can name stars, so those star-naming products that are sold as gifts are not official. This is to prevent any stars being given similar or the same names.
This means that no scientific paper will refer to the same star by the name you chose for it. It will only be referred to by its designation given to it by the IAU, or perhaps a few choice proper names that have also been IAU approved.
Imagine if they were official – there could be hundreds of stars named ‘Rachel’ alone! It would be a disaster, and so – these names are not considered official and are rejected by astronomers and the IAU. In fact, the IAU even called this practice ‘charlatanry’ – slandering it as useless! Ouch!
So in a way, you could agree with the IAU and call the commercial star-naming product a sham but everyone retains the right to name a star.
Technically, you can point to Sirius and start calling it the Cat Star if you wish – just don’t expect it to be referred to as that in any serious scientific works.
So – how are stars named today?
Most stars in our sky have already had their names for centuries, and each has a few approved proper names used by the IAU. These proper names often relate to their constellation or figures from mythology. Some even have approved proper names to commemorate scientists and astronomers.
However, most stars are given something called a star designation – a special name or code that is unique to that single star. This makes it easier to refer to individual stars in scientific papers.
Some are made up using different ways such as their proper names, the Bayer designations table, or computer generated codes.
Unfortunately, commercially sold star names are not IAU recognized so no astronomer will refer to a star by the name you picked out for it. They will instead be referred to by its star designation to help reduce the confusion and risk of overlapping star names.
And that is how stars are named today! This process makes it possible for every star to have its own individual name – all 200 billion trillion of them!
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