Who Names the Stars? – Pacific Standard
The International Astronomical Union has established a committee to finalize a list of official star names. Some companies offer unofficial naming rights for purchase. But the voices of certain communities are often left behind.
By accident of Earth’s 23.5-degree tilt and the specific geography of our view of space, amateur astronomers and travelers who find themselves lost in the Northern hemisphere have long searched for Ursa Major, the great bear, whose torso is formed by the conspicuous Big Dipper. Amid the pandemonium of the night sky, the Dipper moonlights as outer space’s guide, revealing the locations of more obscure stars and constellations. Draw an imaginary line to form the ladle’s far edge from bottom to top, and Polaris, alpha Ursae Minoris, the North Star, is sixth lengths of that line—a 540-light-year slip of the finger—away. Draw an imaginary line down the dipper’s handle, and you can find the constellation Hercules in one direction and Gemini in the other. And, if you pull out your binoculars and keep your sights trained nearby the Dipper itself, you can find a heavenly body invisible to the naked eye, and yet, somehow, close to home: the official star of the state of Delaware.
The Delaware Diamond, of course, hasn’t always been so named. In 1999, the Delaware Museum of Natural History held a contest to name a star after it purchased the naming rights from the International Star Registry, an Illinois-based company that had been incessantly offering celestial naming rights on radio buys around Christmas for over two decades. A 12-year-old won the contest, and, in 2000, at the behest of Delaware’s lieutenant governor, perhaps desperate for an act of bipartisan consensus, the general assembly put a bill forward to recognize it as the official star of the state.
The bill passed unanimously, but would come to consternate some Delawareans. To more crotchety observers, it served as yet another example of Delaware demeaning itself by scrambling to valorize minutiae. The state has consistently dispensed official designations solicited from school children: It recognizes “The First State” (the suggestion of a first-grade class) as an official nickname, and peach pie (the suggestion of fifth- and sixth-graders) as the official state dessert.
To the conscientious, there was also a larger problem: The International Star Registry and its star names are not recognized by any astronomical body as legitimate. No astronaut will ever refer to a galactic event near the Diamond; no NASA rocket scientist will ever set her sights on Delaware. In the words of the International Astronomical Union, a century old body with 82 member countries that through force of academic consensus actually has the power to name the sky, the ISR has “has no formal validity whatsoever.”
Because the sky is shared but only accessible at a distance, there have always been competing star naming systems. Arabian cultures in the centuries after Mohammed, for example, had a linguistic separation between what they called the stars of the astronomers and the ‘stars of the Arabs’—those that common people used in daily life. But now that might change: As the ISR sails past 2 million stars named, the IAU has formally set out to codify official star names for the first time ever. In 2016, it established a Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) to scour the globe for potential names and to adjudicate naming disputes concerning prominent stars.
The task requires great diplomacy: To label the sky is, necessarily, to unlabel it. The careful choice of which tradition to defer to contains acts of erasure. Should the two stars that make up the “stinger” in the Ptolemaic constellation Scorpius, for example, be named after the Arabic and Greek words for stinger and sting respectively, as the Western tradition has decided? Or should they be identified as two boys walking together, as the Chaco in Argentina have? The IAU’s parceling of the sky by executive decision, and to a lesser extent the ISR’s by payment, reveal an uncomfortable truth: The stars belong to everybody, but their names cannot. The WGSN must now figure out how best to leave various peoples out.
Reaching for the Star Names
Long before the days of Acrux, Gacrux, Libertas, and a slate of contrived names befitting of high sci-fi that came into existence in or after the 19th century, the first star names were functional. They emerged not from the halls of science, but rather from sailors and herdsman, as a navigational necessity or as an agricultural harbinger of the end of Fall or the beginning of Spring.
For those, like sailors, who relied on the sky, constellation names typically formed the basis for star names. The stars in Ursa Major, for example, Dubhe, Merak, and Phecda, mean bear, loins of the bear, and thigh of the bear, respectively, in Arabic; the Southern Hemisphere constellation Eradinus, the river, is made up in part by Archernar and Zaurak, Arabic for the end of the river and the boat, respectively, and Rana, Latin for the frog.
In 2010, after a number of exoplanets were discovered orbiting distant stars, the IAU elected to label them via public naming contests. This decision led to a classificatory windfall: If planets were to be named, so should their host stars, the IAU determined. But if host stars were to receive names, it was important that we didn’t re-use those from other stars, which meant the IAU had to codify a list of those other stars.
In the process of cataloging other star names, the IAU noticed that the names scientists employed for notable stars were almost all in Greek, Latin, or Arabic. So the IAU established the WGSN, which now seats 18 members, both to set official names, for perpetuity, of prominent stars, and to try to make the names of stars more culturally diverse and inclusive.
According to Alejandro Martín López, a cultural astronomer and member of the IAU from Argentina, the historic underrepresentation of indigenous groups in the Western astronomic tradition has the effect of homogenizing far more than just the skies. “Many of these astronomical views are linked with identity and idea of terrestrial landscape,” he says. “If you cut these sky views, you cut these identities.”
The WGSN first began its search for a more expansive list of names by setting limits on acceptable ones. Among other dictates, names must be pronounceable in some language—though all are transliterated into the Latin alphabet; they cannot be in reference to a primarily military or political event; and they must be non-offensive, non-commercial, and preferably between four and 16 characters. Pet names are also banned, pursuant to a controversy in 1985 when an astronomer, James Gibson, named an asteroid “Mr. Spock,” after his cat.
But beyond these restrictions, the problem of setting names—particularly with an eye toward durable relevance, linguistically and culturally, for the next thousands of years—is not an easy one. Imagine you were tasked with naming celestial objects. Where would you begin?
The first step might be to set a language, much as the IAU has with Latin. With perpetuity in mind, however, this part is tough. The languages people recognize shift rapidly and unpredictably: 200 years ago, French was a dominant language worldwide. And of course, a language itself can morph: Middle English didn’t have set capitalization rules or contractions, the letters “U” and “J” came to the modern English language in the 16th century, and “snowflake” did not come to officially mean an “overly sensitive person” until 2019.
These and other problems posed by shifting languages have dogged star catalogers for millennia. Lesath, one of the stinger stars in Scorpius, was mistranslated from its initial Greek meaning of “foggy” to Arabic to Latin and then back to Arabic again, before astronomers settled on a name meaning “sting.”
Once you’ve chosen a language—linguists says that Latin and Arabic are sensible choices, since both have long traditions in the sciences—the real task begins. In the West, but notably not so much elsewhere, places and geographical features are often named after historical or religious figures, according to Sheila Embleton, a York University linguist who was once president of the International Council of Onomastic Sciences, an academic organization devoted to the study of naming. But there is a big problem with naming stars after such figures—which perhaps explains why the WGSN has a guideline against naming bright stars after individuals: As mores change, and historical heroes are reassessed as immoral, cancel culture can come for the stars. This isn’t an abstract problem in the naming of outer space. There are asteroids today named after Vladimir Lenin (Wladilena) and Josip Tito (Tito). A number of minor planets, like major countries and institutions on Earth, are named after Christopher Columbus.
Embleton suggests that saints and royalty tend to have names that age well—the former because they have been pre-vetted, and the latter, she says, because they are given a pass. If such names aren’t to your taste, however, another solution is to name astronomical bodies after lesser figures, with no presumption of sustained cultural relevance. All four Beatles, Eric Clapton, and Herbert Hoover have asteroids named after them; Monty Python’s John Cleese is now a minor planet, as are Bill Nye, Johnny Galecki, and Beatrix Potter (and Bacon and Beer). Outer space is littered with nominal grabs for immortality: The names of astronomers and their dead relatives sprinkle the sky, Lutz Schmadel, a prolific discoverer of asteroids, once said, though spouse-inspired names are more common than children-inspired ones.
If you’re worried that a reference to a person might become dated, you might decide to instead name a star after a geographical or spatial feature, as is common in the non-Western world, according to Embleton. This is, of course, how many constellations were named: after what they loosely appeared to be. But unity of celestial vision is often hard to achieve. The sky is chaotic, and the same grouping of stars can be interpreted in starkly different ways, as if a Rorschach test. Some tribes in North America see what is known officially as Ursa Major as an elk, deer, or scorpion; others in the Americas see half of it as a bear, and the other half as three hunters chasing it; in Europe, many see it as a wagon. Owing to this wild variance in symbolic projections onto the sky, some scholars in the ’60s even suggested one could derive a genealogy of tribes from the degree to which their folkloric cosmologies were shared; one astronomer took this logic to its cosmic conclusion and argued the intercontinental interpretation of Ursa Major as seven brothers was evidence of migration into America from Siberia during the Ice Age.
Beyond disagreement on how to name the same sets of stars, another problem is that not every cultural tradition views the sky as a collection of nameable items in the same discreet ways. According to Martín López, many indigenous groups have names for asterisms (clusters of stars), but not for individual ones. Other groups include negative features of the sky—the dark spots between stars—as constituent parts of constellations: The Chaco in Argentina, for example, refer to alpha Centauri, or Rigel to the IAU—a binary star that appears as one to the naked eye—as the “two dogs chasing the celestial bird.” In this account, the bird is formed, like a photo negative, by a swath of dark spots in the band of the Milky Way.
Finally, there’s the challenge of balancing names with the fact that the night sky is not an equally shared resource. People at the planet’s extremes, like the Inuit, for example, have limited nighttime in the summer, and they experience snow and cloud cover, as well as bright polar moonlight, in the winter. As a result, historically, they’ve had fewer star names than have herdsman in the world’s grassy plains. As the WGSN collects names, its chair, Eric Mamajek, has noticed that the Chinese and Wardaman people of Indigenous Australia, for example, have many star names to choose from, whereas other groups, such as the Mursi people of Ethiopia and Native Hawaiians, do not. (Recently, the IAU adopted the star name “Imai,” from Mursi, for a star in the Southern Cross, and “Paikauhale,” from Hawaiian, for a star in Scorpius). Mamajek notes that most traditions have names for the brightest star, Alpha Canis Majoris or Sirius, but none have a non-scientific name for the relatively bright star in the constellation Lupus currently referred to as Epsilon Lupi.
“Our focus over the next couple years is on widening the net for names from a growing list of cultures,” Mamajek says. “Much of the low-hanging fruit in terms of astronomical literature has been already harvested.”
The WGSN has slowed down on naming stars, according to Mamajek, to make sure it continues to find names that expand the cultural horizons of the IAU. He specifies that of the current 313 names, indigenous groups from the Americas and Africa are notably underrepresented.
For most, there’s no official recourse for being left out of the IAU’s naming of the sky. For those of means and no regard for scientific validity, however, there is, perhaps, another option.
A Star Is Bought
In May of 1979, the Toronto Festival of Festivals made a promise to prospective patrons: Anyone who gave more than $250 to the event would get the right to name a star in the Andromeda galaxy, authenticated by the International Star Registry with the cooperation of the Smithsonian Institute, and recorded by the Library of Congress. Yet, in July, two months before the festival began, representatives of the Smithsonian issued a press release clarifying that the organization had never heard of the International Star Registry prior to the festival. Later that year, a Library of Congress spokesman said, on account of the misleading branding, that she’d “like to put them [the ISR] out of business.”
Pressed for explanation, the film festival admitted its promise had been in error: The International Star Registry, in fact, would simply use Smithsonian Institution coordinates to identify stars to be named, and would publish those names and corresponding geo-locations in a book copyrighted by the Library of Congress, as all books published in America are. What the ISR offered, in actuality, was little more than a galactic cartography of unfulfillable promises.
And yet, despite astronomers like former IAU Documentation Committee Chairman Wullf Heintz consistently decrying the ISR as a “dumb idea” or the “result of decaying capitalism,” buyers kept coming. In 1982, the Research Institute of America suggested buying star names to reward standout employees; by 1984, there were 16 stars awarded to “John Smiths,” and five named for Barry Manilow.
In 1983, John Mosele, the vice president of the ISR, called his organization’s reference to the Library of Congress in promotional capacity “legitimate puffery.” Today, Elaine Stolpe, the ISR’s Director of Marketing and Communications, makes clear that the “service is not intended for scientific research; it is intended as a lasting gift.”
The ISR has now sold over 2 million stars—well beyond the 400,000 it reported having in stock for purchase in 1982. It partners with film companies releasing movies, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and, unlike the IAU, allows names from a variety of languages—simplified Chinese, Greek—to be written in the native characters. While the European Union does not recognize its trademarks, considering them deceptive, the ISR has successfully fended off copycats in the United States multiple times. It has withstood citation and investigations by multiple state departments of commerce alleging grift, only to later to earn an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.
“Stars don’t belong to anyone—to us, or astronomers,” Stolpe says. “We’re respectful of astronomers, but we believe everybody is moved by the stars and always has been. They belong to everybody.”
In fact, one star, it turns out, may have unofficially belonged to me. My aunt, when I was in elementary school, purchased a star name for me and my siblings one Christmas. In physical terms, the gift was an enveloped certificate, with data on where to look for the star. In turn, it became misplaced on some shelf in the flotsam of school art projects and papers, sports gear and participant trophies, Gameboys and binoculars. With the certificate, the star was functionally lost too.
In an email last month, Stolpe confirmed for me the existence of “Rowen’s Star,” printed and copyrighted by the Library of Congress in the seventh volume of ISR’s book, Your Place in the Cosmos. The star, close to the third brightest one in the Northern hemisphere, Capella, is not itself visible to the naked eye. “The biggest impediment to locating stars of this magnitude is light pollution rather than magnification,” Stolpe wrote. I had grown up in a city. I’m not sure any of us had ever looked for Rowen’s Star—but perhaps we had gone out and just missed it.
But earlier this month, I wanted to find it. The universe, it has been noted, has a way of trivializing earthly squabbles and ambition on account of their cosmic insignificance. This is supposed to be a humbling thought, but cosmic insignificance also facilitates Earthly delusion: While I may be meaningless, I thought, I’m meaningless on the same order of magnitude as mountains, as parliaments, as astronomical authorities. My star name is a rounding error, but so are the IAU’s: The stars, in belonging to none of us, can be claimed by all.
Around 2:30 a.m. one recent Friday, I headed out to a vacant, dimly lit lot by my apartment. As a child, I had loved star-gazing, but the experience of looking for Rowen’s Star put my antique knowledge to the test. I knew from a Google search to look for the Big Dipper, the key to the convoluted skies, whose top edge forms a line that points in the general direction of Capella, in the constellation Auriga. I had sketched a rough idea of how to triangulate the region where my star must be—plain black to the naked eye—once I’d located Auriga, which allegedly resembles a charioteer and his goat. But the first night I looked to the northeast, the Dipper had plunged behind mountains, and I couldn’t find a goat in the sky.
Two nights later I went back out, armed with more indicators. The star would be near the constellation Perseus, too; at 4:50 a.m., Orion’s belt would crest and I could locate his non bow-hand which would gesture in Rowen’s direction. But when I walked to my car to drive to an even darker field, there was too heavy cloud cover, so I turned back.
On my third attempt, an evening later, I finally found some success. Tracking a line across the top of the Dipper, passing by scores of inaccessible stars I didn’t know the name of, I eventually landed upon Capella. I pulled out my binoculars and fixed them on a nearby dark region, bringing yet more stars to life. Which one was Rowen’s, I couldn’t quite tell.