Naming Day

In Stars by Brian Koberlein0 Comments

Out of the vast sea of stars in the night sky, a few are special. Not because of their size, or color, or age, but because they have a name. When we name a star, we make it a part of our collective cultural heritage. Their names inspire epic stories, or remind us of our history.

Of course many stars have multiple names. The brightest star in the night sky is most commonly known as Sirus, from the Latin. But Geoffrey Chaucer referred to it as Alhabor. In Arabic it is Mirzam Al-Jawza, and in many cultures it is known as the dog-star or wolf-star. All human cultures have a history of astronomy, so lots of stars have multiple names. So how do we deal with this in astronomy? Traditionally we have relied upon the names from Western astronomy. That meant mostly Latin names for the bright stars and Arabic names for dimmer ones, since Arabic astronomers of the Middle Ages were so meticulous in their observations, and later Europeans relied upon their catalogs. Another way is to use the order of brightness within a particular constellation. So Rigel, in the constellation Orion, is Beta Orionis, since it is the second brightest star in Orion, after Betelgeuse. Some stars are most commonly known by this, such as the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus, Alpha Centauri. In Chinese astronomy it is known as Nán Mén Èr, or the second star of the southern gate.

The problem with this naming scheme is that the official constellations mainly derive from European tradition,  so they ignore the long history of astronomy in other parts of the world. We could just stop using names and instead use catalog numbers. But HD 172167 doesn’t appeal to us in the same way that Vega does. Names connect us both to the stars and our history, so why not use the names we have. The challenge is to use names that honor both the history of astronomy and the diverse cultures that have contributed to our common understanding of the stars. This is the goal of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Division C Working Group on Star Names (WGSN). Over the past several years they have built a list of officially recognized names for stars. Recently they have added 86 new names to the list, bringing the total to 313.

Some of the list simply makes the most popular names official. Sirius, Betelgeuse, and Vega keep their names. Others change slightly, such as Alpha Centauri becoming Rigel Kentaurus (the foot of the Centaur). But other names are drawn from across the globe. The fifth brightest star in the constellation of the Southern Cross (Epsilon Crucis) now has the name Ginan. It derives from the astronomy of aboriginal Australia, which is perhaps the oldest culture of astronomy on Earth. A star in the Hyades cluster commonly called Theta-2 is now recognized as Chamukuy, from the Mayan. Zeta Piscium now has the Hindu name Revati. All of these names have been used in some circles of astronomy, but the IAU designation now recognizes them as the preferred name.

These names are just the beginning. The stars will continue to call to us. As we further understand them, learn of planets that orbit them, and perhaps even travel among them someday we will continue to give them names. They will continue to inspire stories of our history, wonder, past and future.

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