Star Names: Where Do They Come From? And Can You Buy One?

RMSC Strasenburgh Planetarium Information Bulletin #19 December 1996

Under perfect viewing conditions, thousands of stars may be visible to someone with good eyesight. But only a few dozen of the brightest stars have proper names. Most of those names come from a variety of ancient cultures and languages, mostly from the Middle East and the Mediterranean region.

Greek star names

Some star names come to us from the Greek culture of more than 2500 years ago. Ancient Greek star names usually described a star's place among the constellations (the ancient constellations are star groups named after people, animals, and objects in mythology). For example, the bright springtime star Arcturus gets its name from a Greek word meaning "the bear watcher," because the star is near the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

Arabic star names

A few very old star names originated among people who lived in the Arabian peninsula more than a thousand years ago, before the rise of Islam. However, many Arabic star names sprang up later in history, as translations of ancient Greek descriptions.

The astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who lived almost two thousand years ago in Alexandria, Egypt, collected ancient Greek descriptions of 1,025 stars in a book called The Great System of Astronomy, published around the year 150 A.D. Ptolemy's book was translated into Arabic in the 8th and 9th centuries and became famous under its shortened Arabic title, the Almagest. Many of the Arabic-language star descriptions in the Almagest came to be used widely as names for stars.

In Europe, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, many ancient star names were copied or translated incorrectly by various writers, some of whom did not know the Arabic language very well. As a result, the history of a star's name can be complicated.

Constellation: Orion

An example: the history of the name Betelgeuse

Betelgeuse is a very bright winter star in the constellation Orion, the Hunter. Through history, this star has been referred to by a variety of names.

The old, pre-Islamic Arabic name was yad al-jawza, meaning "the hand of Orion," or mankib al-jawza, "the shoulder of Orion." Some Latin books of the Middle Ages spelled this Mancamalganze.

Sometime in the Middle Ages, someone copied the Arabic name incorrectly, mistaking one letter of the Arabic alphabet for another. The result was Bedalgeuze, which doesn't mean anything in Arabic. Still later, another writer simply assumed that the first syllable was supposed to be the Arabic word for armpit, and called the star Betelgeuse, "armpit of Orion"!

Even today, there is no general agreement on how to spell Betelgeuse. In Europe, it's often spelled Betelgeuze (with "z" instead of "s") or Beteigeuse (with "i" instead of "l").

Other names for Betelgeuse

The scientific name for Betelgeuse used by astronomers worldwide today is Alpha Orionis. That name comes from a list of stars compiled in 1603 by the German astronomer Johann Bayer. Bayer assigned Greek letters to the brightest stars in each constellation. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet.

Betelgeuse is also known by its "Flamsteed number" 58 Orionis, from a list of stars collected by the English astronomer John Flamsteed and printed in 1712. In Flamsteed's list, the stars in each constellation are numbered from east to west.

Modern star catalogs

Today, professional astronomers do not give names to stars -- only numbers, in long lists called star catalogs.

The biggest star catalog today is the Hubble Guide Star Catalog, which lists 16 million stars, none bright enough to see with the naked eye, that the Hubble Space Telescope uses to find its targets.

The catalog is available for sale to the public on a CD-ROM. One vendor that sells it is the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1-800-335-2624.

Can you buy a star?

Today, there is no group or person that is generally recognized as having the authority to sell or give new names to stars. There is an organization, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), that gives official names to craters, mountains, and similar features on other planets and moons, but the IAU does not name stars.

However, there are some private businesses that will, for a fee of about $45 or more, attach your name to a star. How do they pick their stars? One of these companies simply takes a star from the Hubble Guide Star Catalog when a new order comes in. They sketch the star's position on a star map (remember, none of the Hubble Guide Stars is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye), and then send you the map and a certificate with information about your star inscribed in attractive calligraphy.

This can be harmless good fun if you understand that none of these companies has the authority to give an official name to a star.

It's also important to remember that these companies are not likely to "sell" you a star bright enough to see with the naked eye, because there just aren't enough naked-eye stars to satisfy all their customers!

Usually, planetariums and professional astronomers have frowned on star-naming companies because their work is not official. However, a recent editorial in the magazine Sky and Telescope suggested that star names could be sold to raise money for astronomical research. What do you think?

To find out more...

...see the following articles in Sky and Telescope magazine (check your local library for back issues):

"How We Got Our 'Arabic' Star Names" by Paul Kunitzsch, January 1983, pp. 20-22. (Most of the information in this FAQ document came from this article.)

"Who Numbered Flamsteed's Stars?" by Morton Wagman, April 1991, pp. 380-381.

"Selling Stars," editorial by Philip Bagnall, October 1996, pp. 6-7.

A short introduction to the history of the constellations appears in Star Maps for Beginners by I. M. Levitt and Roy K. Marshall (Fireside, 1992).

One of the major "star-naming" companies is International Star Registry, phone (800) 282-3333.