So You Want to Buy a Star?
One Planetarian's Perspective

NOTE: the information that follows is based on my own personal experience and research. All information contained herein is intended to help the reader make an informed buying decision. It is presented here, protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
As the head of a planetarium, I often get calls from people who want to buy a star or to have a star named for someone. Here some of the questions I hear and how I answer them.

I'm also including an actual story of one of my visitors who had already "purchased" a star.


Can I buy a star? That question is a little like asking if you can buy air or sunshine. Nobody owns the stars so it logically follows that nobody can actually sell you a star.
Can I have a star named for me or someone else? If you want to have a star named and have that name used by astronomers then the answer is no. Read the section below on how stars get their names.

If you want to pay someone to send you a certificate with some stellar coordinates, a star map and a letter, there are companies that do exactly that. However, be aware that this is little more than a novelty item and, often, an expensive one. There is nothing official about the name nor is there any guarantee that the star you've "purchased" hasn't been sold to someone else by another company in the same business.

There are about 6000 visible stars in the night sky. If the numbers reported by one of these dealers in star names are correct, all of those have been sold. Therefore, if you were to buy a star, it's unlikely that you'd even be able to see it.

Below is a recount of a visit I received from someone who had purchased a star name from a company. It will give you an idea of what he received for his money.


How do stars get their names? Most of the stars that have actual names got them in antiquity. One of the earliest star atlases, The Almagest, dates back to the 3rd century BC.

Today, the International Astronomical Union is the governing body regarding the names of stars, planets, moons and other celestial bodies. Their power derives from an agreement among the world's astronomers and international treaty. If you buy a star name from a company, it will not be recognized by the IAU.

The IAU does not sell stars or star names. Click here for their statement on the buying and selling of star names.


But what about comets and asteroids? Comets are generally named after the people (or, more recently, machines) who discovered them. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp are credited with the simultaneous discovery of the comet that bears their names. Comet LINEAR was named after the space probe that discovered it.

Asteroids are generally given a numeric designation. However, the IAU has, in the past, given names to them based on suggestions they receive from the discoverer. The names generally derive from scientists, artists, musicians, etc. Click here for a list of asteroids that have been named. Maybe you'll find your name in that list.


So what did you tell the guy who'd bought a star? First, he called asking if I could show him the star he'd bought. I told him most of what you read above but he insisted on coming to the planetarium so he could see the star.

When he arrived, he told me that he'd received a certificate with coordinates for his star, a star map with his star circled, a letter from the company congratulating him on his place in the heavens and an order form for the book with his name in it. Unfortunately, he brought none of this with him. He'd written down the coordinates on the back of a supermarket receipt.

First I went to my computer and checked the coordinates using an astronomy program. Then I used a second program. Finally I pulled up a third program which showed stars to 15th magnitude*.

I explained to him that astronomers use fairly high precision numbers for stellar coordinates. The coordinates he had were only accurate to minutes of arc rather than seconds of arc.** Within a one arc minute circle, there were half a dozen stars. I told him he could take his pick.

We went into the planetarium where I pointed out the region of the sky where his star resided. Naturally, because our planetarium only shows stars down to about 6th magnitude, there was nothing for us to see.

I'm not exactly sure how the next turn of events took place but he demanded to see my supervisor. When the boss came down, my visitor complained about my inability to show him the star he'd bought. From his perspective, if I couldn't find his star, I must not know much about astronomy. My boss, who just retired after 33 years in the planetarium field, told him that he couldn't find it either; it was just too dim.

The guy was pretty hot under the collar when he left and I haven't seen him since.


My final thoughts on the subject If, after reading this, you still want to pay a company to name a star for you, by all means go right ahead. You have the right to spend your money any way you please.

If, however, you'd like to buy an astronomical gift of a different nature, I have the following suggestions:

Please do not contact me asking for the names or addresses of companies who deal in the selling of star names.


You can contact the author of this page at jcc@efn.org.
Special thanks to all of you who have found this page useful and to those of you who have helped me keep it up to date.
Notes:

*Magnitude is the measurement of the brightness of a star. The higher the number, the dimmer the star. The dimmest stars visible to the naked eye are about 6th magnitude.
**An arc minute is 1/60 of a degree. An arc second is 1/60 of an arc minute or 1/3600 of a degree.