With the holiday shopping season moving into fifth gear, you may have heard those commercials offering you a chance to give "a gift that lasts a lifetime" (and in fact, a few billion years beyond that): the chance to name a star after someone.
As a branding proposition, this idea has a lot going for it. Everybody knows what a star is, so there's no consumer education involved. A star is naturally luminescent, eco-friendly, requires no maintenance, and the inventory is excellent. Astronomers estimate there are 70 sextillion stars in the visible universe—that's 70 thousand million million million. So, just imagine: You or someone you love can have your very own 28-million-degree erupting ball of hydrogen! Just be ready to get the plastic out. The Name A Star Deluxe Package comes complete with a framed registration certificate and a celestial map that'll set you back $69.95 plus shipping (at least they let you choose what constellation you want). The "Ultimate" package from the International Star Registry arrives at your terrestrial home with a framed certificate, locator map, a letter of congratulations, and even a wallet card that identifies you as a star owner—all for only $154.95. (Wow, we'll take two!)
But after years of listening to sentimental ads from several star-naming outfits, we had a question: Are all these star names, like, official in any way? Will "Becky the Star" show up on a NASA map at some point? We tried to contact NASA's media department, but they didn't respond. Then we tried Edward L. Wright, who teaches physics and astronomy at UCLA. Professor Wright had a very succinct answer about whether these star names you can buy are official. "No!!!" he said. Turns out the International Astronomical Union identifies stars by numbers like "BD 16d1591" or "HR 2491" When stars do go by names, they sound more like Alpha Canis Majoris, and not "Pete." Too bad, huh?
But it's even worse for the operators of celestial observatories on public-access nights. According to Richard Rosenberg, president of the New York chapter of the Amateur Astronomers Association, "Sometimes people actually expect the person manning the scope to know where their star is located." Where? We'll tell you: It's located in the file cabinet of the marketer who cooked up this nutty star-naming idea to start with.
—Posted by Robert Klara