Outer space is everywhere: Not only are we physically surrounded by it, but we’re inundated with images of it, both real and fictional. NASA’s long-lived Cassini mission is ending this week, just after its even longer-lived Voyager mission marked its 40th anniversary. SpaceX is about to launch the most powerful operational rocket in the world. Star Trek is returning to TV, The Martian author Andy Weir is returning to bookshelves, and Destiny 2 and a new Metroid release are bringing gamers back to the stars. Please join us at The Ringer as we celebrate and explore the cultural resonance and science of space all week long.
In the 2002 film A Walk to Remember, Mandy Moore plays a teenager dying of leukemia whose boyfriend (Shane West) romances her by “buying” her a star. “I had it named for you. See — it’s official. It’s from the International Star Registry,” he says, handing her a piece of paper.
A Walk to Remember is fictional, of course, and Mandy Moore is both alive and thriving in real life. But the International Star Registry is a real business — it’s an Illinois-based mom-and-pop company, and has been around since 1979 — and it does give customers a piece of paper declaring that they’ve named a star.
The naming of stars is an ancient human pursuit. In the second century, in between likely inventing trigonometry and studying eclipses, the Greek astronomer Hipparchus mapped stars, creating the first known comprehensive plot of the constellations in the Western world. Sadly, Hipparchus’s catalog of celestial bodies was largely lost to history, and the names he chose for the stars did not survive. His successors, particularly in Greek and Arabic astronomy circles, had better luck. They gave the bright patterns in the sky mythical and lasting designations: Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Orion.
These ancients understood the power of names. They also did not realize how many stars existed. Modern astronomers, even equipped with powerful telescopes, still do not know how many stars there are, but they have a rough and comically vast estimate: between 100 billion and 200 billion per galaxy. (Last year, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope discovered there are likely 200 billion galaxies.) There are more stars than words. There are too many stars to ever name them all. For practical purposes, we can say they’re infinite.
This insurmountable vastness led astronomers to abandon the project of naming most stars and constellations individually. In 1603, a German lawyer named Johann Bayer created a naming system using Greek letters. As there are only 24 Greek letters, it wasn’t very sensible, which astronomers soon discovered — the telescope was invented in 1608, offering a newly detailed look at the sky’s colossal size. In the 1700s, an alternative system named after the English astronomer John Flamsteed numbered the stars from west to east in each constellation. This was an improvement over Bayer, but still unwieldy, and for a long time after that, astronomers tackled the problem of naming and numbering the stars by creating catalogs of different pieces of the sky. It was more manageable, but fragmented and chaotic, with different cultures and groups coming up with overlapping and incompatible schematics for what to call the cosmos. Some stars ended up being named after the people who discovered them, like Sakurai’s Object, an unusual stellar explosion named after backyard astronomer Yukio Sakurai in 1996.
In 2016, the International Astronomical Union, a professional group for astronomers, created a working group to standardize star designations. The Paris-based group is internationally recognized as the authority on star names. The IAU arrives at this authority through consensus within the scientific community, and it’s generally uncontested. “The IAU is the only organization officially authorized to name stars,” IAU Secretariat member Madeleine Smith-Spanier told me over email. “The names are assigned on a strictly scientific basis, and it is not possible for a person to ‘buy’ a star or give it a name.”
So that A Walk to Remember scene doesn’t exactly hold up, as the International Star Registry cannot actually confer star-naming rights.
The papers that the company gives its customers are not official in any way, but simply a novelty gift. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs took on the International Star Registry in 1998 for what it said were deceptive practices. “Wishing upon their ‘own’ star can’t change the fact that consumers are getting nothing more than a piece of paper in a frame,” New York City’s then–consumer affairs commissioner Jules Polonetsky said in a statement at the time. “Other than a sidewalk in Hollywood, consumers who want their own star are better off saving their money by walking into Central Park, pointing to the sky and naming it themselves.”
The International Star Registry readily admits now that its gifts are for entertainment purposes only. Since people can’t actually name stars, it offers a simulation of the experience, a way to try to approximate the formality of ownership without actual ownership. Rather than paying for any type of recognized naming rights, customers pay for the gifts that accompany the “naming” — handsome framed parchment, star charts customized to include their chosen name, engraved silver jewelry, pet rocks, and a book called Your Place in the Cosmos. It’s essentially a quirky gift shop for people who like to stargaze. Elaine Stolpe, the company’s marketing director, told me that the company has embraced the way the internet and technology have made star-charting easier (ISR uses an algorithm to assign stars), but that it still maintains some old-fashioned flourishes. It employs an in-house calligrapher, for example, to pen its naming documents. “It’s kind of a dying art form,” she said.
Since the International Star Registry launched, dozens of competitors have sprung up to offer novelty “naming” rights as well, although they don’t always offer equally elaborate gift packages. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek company called Buy Uranus, which lets you “purchase” a piece of the planet. Some of these star-naming companies do not charge money. “We give away the stars for free because star naming is an unofficial thing. It is not real. No astronomer will ever recognize the name of your star, regardless where you name it and how much you pay,” Marc Necker, founder of German-based star-naming company Staracle, told me via email. “Every star naming company will simply keep the name in their own personal database, they are not even synchronized.”
The IAU is dismissive of the novelty star-naming cottage industry.
“There are many websites that pretend to offer such a service. Do not believe them, even if they hand out fancy-looking ‘certificates.’ They are only trying to take your money for nothing in return,” Smith-Spanier said.
But there is a glimmer of hope for people who long to name a piece of the sky, who can’t be satisfied with the unsanctioned, unofficial gifts offered by these “star-naming” companies. Occasionally, the IAU will break from its habit of simply assigning numbers to celestial bodies in order to honor people it deems worthy.
“I had an asteroid named after me,” professor Joanne Gabrynowicz told me over the phone. Gabrynowicz is an expert on space law, and has spent her life thinking about how humans relate to space. One of her colleagues, an astrophysicist, nominated her. “About two years ago, he calls me up and goes, ‘I need to know your birthday,’” she said. “I gave him my birthday.” Over a year later, she’d forgotten all about the phone call, and received a surprising email informing her about the celestial body now known as (9002) Gabrynowicz.
Of course, Gabrynowicz earned the rare honor of getting a celestial body named after her; she has spent her long and renowned career contributing to our understanding of space. The IAU also occasionally names stars after famous thinkers who aren’t directly connected to space — two Spanish astronomical societies had a proposal accepted to name stars after the writer Miguel de Cervantes, as well as some of his most famous characters, like Don Quixote, in 2015.
Today, to obtain official naming privileges, one must either do something substantial enough to meet the IAU’s approval, or go the Sakurai route and somehow discover a new star from a backyard telescope. Star-naming is not possible for most regular people, which is, I think, the proper state of affairs. It’s a very American thing to want to name a star after yourself or a loved one, both sweet and remarkably presumptuous at the same time. If anyone could name a star, the wild audacity of the accomplishments of the people who have been in the position to name one or have one named after them would be diminished. Stars are beautiful in part because they are out of reach. While a calligraphed document feigning a sort of ownership over a star’s name is certainly not the best-value purchase a person can make, it’s appropriately, endearingly kitschy — a sentimental gesture toward the eternal and that which is beyond our grasp.