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stars ones eye

Stars named after people

Over the past few centuries, a small number of stars have been named after individual people. It is common in astronomy for objects to be given names, in accordance with accepted astronomical naming conventions. However, most stars are not given proper names, relying on either long-standing traditional names (usually from the Arabic), or catalogue numbers.

Nomenclature

The naming of astronomical bodies is controlled by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which normally names features on planetary surfaces after people, and then lays down strict standards for this naming - craters on Mercury, for example, are named after "famous deceased artists, musicians, painters and authors". However, the right of choosing names for asteroids is given to the discoverer, pending IAU approval. This tends to produce an idiosyncratic collection of names - whilst many are named after mythological figures, or prominent astronomers, many more are named after popular musicians, obscure historical figures, or personal friends of the discoverer.

The IAU does not name stars, and has no intention of doing so; proper names are rarely if ever used by professional astronomers, and so there is no need for them to. Whilst many private companies will offer the "right" to name a star, for a fee, they have no legal standing to assign any star a name, and can offer no guarantee of the name being noted.

Leaving aside these attempts, the stars named after individuals fall broadly into two groups. The first group, mostly older stars, are those named openly for an individual connected with them in some way. The second, somewhat more obscurely, are those named after an individual but without explicitly making this clear.

Openly named stars

There is a small group of stars whose common names honour individuals. Many of these were highly significant in some way when discovered, usually through having some unusual characteristic.

In addition, many stars have catalogue names that contain the name of their discoverer - for example, Wolf 359, discovered by Max Wolf. These are not strictly named after that person, although it may seem that way, but merely given a star designation in the catalogue in which Wolf published his discoveries.

(Note that Pandora's Star and Ratner's Star are the names of novels, not actual stars)

Covertly named stars

However, some names have been given unofficially, and worked their way into star catalogues and thus to "formal" acceptance.

The earliest noted example was Sualocin and Rotanev (α and β Delphini), two stars which appeared in the Palermo star catalogue of 1814. They were eventually identified as the reversed spelling of Nicolaus Venator, a Latinised name of Nicolò Cacciatore, assistant to the astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi. It is not clear whether Piazzi intended to name the stars after his assistant, or if Cacciatore made the names up himself.

More recently, during the Apollo program, it was common for astronauts to be trained in celestial navigation, and to use a list of naked-eye stars from which to take bearings. As a practical joke, Gus Grissom gave names to three stars on this list — Navi (ε Cassiopeiae), Dnoces (ι Ursae Majoris), and Regor (γ Velorum). The names stuck, and were used through the rest of the program. Unknown to Grissom, these stars already had traditional names; however, those were not generally used, allowing the three other names to make their way into other records. Today, they are generally considered disused - some sources listing them as "traditional".

The three names are references to the three Apollo 1 crew:

It is possible, though unlikely, that more "traditional" names are in fact hidden names such as these, not yet identified. However, etymologies for most star names are not currently known.

Commercial "star naming"

There are commercial organisations that sell star names to the public. It is the opinion of many astronomers that such businesses are fraudulent because the names assigned by businesses are not recognised by the International Astronomical Union and have no official status. Astronomers sometimes do not reveal the truth to the victims of this scam, because stars are usually "named" after emotionally important people such as dead children.

References

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