Space Names - The Biggest Con in the Universe?

How do stars get names

Astronomers use their big brains for things other than discovering planets and galaxies. They’re now naming them for profit. Whilst it’s not uncommon for someone to receive a gift of a star to name, some people want entire planets. And one entrepreneurial astronomer, Dr Alan Stern, decided to cash in on this need, creating an organisation called Uwingu that charged people $10 to name the various exoplanets found across the universe.

The problem with this is that those names aren’t officially recognised by the organisation in charge of naming astronomical objects. The aforementioned organisation, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), wasn’t too happy to have these rogue astronomers giving people the ability to name exoplanets - however unofficial it was - so they now hold naming competitions for new exoplanets. They’ve also learnt through trial and error that people on the Internet aren’t to be trusted with such a responsibility - as demonstrated when Star Trek-inspired “Vulcan” won by a landslide as an option to name two of Pluto’s moons. (Those moons are now called Kerberos and Styx, as Vulcan is already in use for a family of asteroids inside Mercury’s orbit.)

Why stay small when you can go big?

This hasn’t stopped Uwingu - they’ve since moved onto Martian craters (still very unofficial). They charge a lot more than $10 to name craters though - it’s a minimum of $250 for the smallest craters, and the large ones go for $1,000. The Mars Rover has probably driven by The Wookie BBQ & Beer Bar. Or it may require legal help and can stop by Mars Legal Studies. Alan Stern himself has even named a province: The University of Colorado at Mars.

mars names.png

But are there any legit organisations that will allow the public to name a star or planet?

Nope, sorry.

The only recognised authority on naming astronomical objects (the IAU) has a complicated naming process in place and their strict guidelines will hinder any attempts at humour or creativity. And they definitely don’t charge money for the privilege. The system is in place to ensure consistency as well as avoid controversy - political, military, and (modern) religious figures need not apply.

Q: But if I want to, can I buy the name of a star anyway?

A: Sure, there are people who will be more than happy to take your money....

Q: Surely the courts will recognize the name I have paid for?

A: Try to contact your lawyers. Chances are that they will either laugh their heads off or politely suggest that you could invest their fees more productively...

Q: But what about the companies that sell pieces of territory on the Moon and other planets? Those are within reach, we know, so surely I own the piece that I have bought?

A: See the answer to the previous question. As a minimum, we suggest that you defer payment until you can take possession of your property…

Snippets from IAU’s FAQ page for naming astro objects

The only exception to the strict rules are asteroids and comets. Asteroids can be named by their discoverer and comets are always named after their discoverer. There are some basic rules for asteroid names, but they’re a lot less strict than the rules for naming stars and planets. There’s an asteroid named Monty Python and another called Mr Spock (after the discoverer’s cat).

Despite the fact that it’s all unofficial, the gift of a star to name is still an outstanding idea for a recipient that’s none-the-wiser about the truth. But we do suggest finding a registry that’s cheap so money isn’t wasted needlessly.

If you want to know the history and ins-and-outs of naming stars, constellations, and deep sky objects, Uncle Rod has published a very informative post about it.

For more interesting (and sometimes ridiculous) naming rules, this article by io9 has a great list.

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