Can You Really Buy A Star?

Many companies offer people what they claim is an amazing chance – a chance to name one of the stars in the sky after a loved one. Most of these companies claim to validate your registration with the Library of Congress. Others state that they copyright their list to maintain your claim or even that they keep their list of names in a vault in Geneva. However, what are you really getting when you buy a star – a legacy of your loved one that will last forever, or a certificate and nothing more?

The IAU, or International Astronomical Union, is the international body in charge of naming celestial objects. They have made their stance on star buying clear, stating in no uncertain terms that buying a star does not officially name it. In fact, the IAU staunchly refuses to recognize the lists of names. This is largely an effort to prevent confusion and conflict – there are millions of stars in the sky, and so most are given catalogue numbers that clearly state their nature and often their location. Having to learn and memorize millions of names, many duplicated (imagine how many John Smith stars there would be), would make astronomy an impossible effort. Those few stars that bear names were named in ancient times (e.g. Sirius), named for their discoverer (e.g. Barnard's Star), or named for the constellation they are in and the magnitude of their brightness (e.g. Alpha Centauri).

Still, one might argue, even if the star is not recognized 'officially', it most likely is unique on the commercial lists – after all, with all the copyrights and registrations, that much has to be true. Sadly, there is nothing at all to prevent the reselling of stars. For one, many competing companies exist, none of which share a list to prevent overlap. The copyrights and registrations only indicate the list as a whole, as it's impossible to copyright a name for a star. The vaults in Geneva mean nothing at all – just that there's a piece of paper in a vault!

So what do you get for your money, then? Generally, just a fancily printed certificate and a small chart showing the location of 'your' star – a chart that is often inaccurate – and nothing more. The star given to you might not even be visible to the naked eye, and even if it is, there is no special recognition or 'copyright' involved. Not only is this a waste of your money and a case of fraud, it also can cause problems for astronomers. Many people ask to see 'their' star at observatories and planetariums, not realizing that the astronomer has absolutely no idea where it is. This can be heart-wrenching if, say, the star was bought for a dead loved one – the astronomer must choose whether to lie to the person asking or to reveal the bitter truth. The deception of the star sellers is potentially quite hurtful indeed.

So, what to do if you want to give your loved one a patch of sky? Buy them a telescope, perhaps, and give them the whole sky. Take them out to an observatory to see the stars in their pure, nameless beauty. Or, if you must give them a star, walk outside with them and find the most beautiful and brilliant one and tell them it's theirs. All of these will mean just as much, if not more, than your false purchase of the heavens.





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