How are the Stars called and where do their names come from?
Most people know the names of stars like Polaris and constellations like Orion. But surprisingly, few people know how stars are named and where those names come from.
Unfortunately, the answer to these questions isn’t so simple. There are many different ways to name stars. In addition, many stars actually have multiple accepted names. In our galaxy alone, there are over 100 billion stars.
Much of the complications surrounding star names come from people naming stars as far back as humans began walking the earth. As history progressed, star names from certain cultures were overridden by others. It wasn’t until the 21st century that information and technology sharing allowed scientists around the globe to agree on single names for each star. Even still, many popular stars have colloquial names that people use to refer to them.
Today, new star names must usually be accepted by the International Astronomical Union known as the IAU. The IAU is a century-old organization of over ten thousand astronomers from around the world.
This article dives into how stars were named in history and in the modern era, as well as the many different methods for naming stars even today. In addition, where these names come from, and the differences between star designations and names will be discussed.
The most famous Star names
Many people know the names of stars like Polaris and Sirius. But how did these famous stars get their names?
Polaris, also known as the North Star, gets its name from its location in the night sky. For centuries, ocean-bound navigators recognized that the star was located near the North Pole. This made it very useful for navigating. In the Renaissance, Dutch scholars named the star “stella polaris” in New Latin, which has since been translated to English as “Polaris.”
Sirius is also known as the “dog star” because of its location in the “Canis Major” or “Big Dog” constellation. But, its name actually has nothing to do with dogs. The name Sirius comes from the ancient Greek word “Seirios,” which means “glowing” or “bright.” The Greeks gave the star this name because they noticed that Sirius was the brightest star of all when they looked at the night sky.
Many know betelgeuse as one of the largest stars in the night sky. Its name is pronounced the same as the famous movie “Beetlejuice.” But, the star’s name actually has no relation to the movie. Betelgeuse was named by a Dutch astronomer in 1603 named Johann Bayer. Bayer actually gave the star a name derived from Arabic that means “the hand of Orion.” Interestingly, a European mistranslation of the name gave it the modern name “Betelgeuse.”
Vega is a very bright star with a very old name. The name Vega comes from a loose translation of the Arabic word for “falling” or “landing.” Arabic astronomers named the star Vega from the phrase “an-nasr al-waqi’,” which translated to English means “the falling eagle.”
Antares is a red supergiant that was named in ancient antiquity. Its name derives from an ancient Greek word that means “rival to Ares.” Ancient Greek astronomers looked at the reddish hue of the star and noticed its many similarities in appearance to the planet Mars. For the Greeks, the planet Mars was named after Ares, the Greek god of war. So, they saw Antares as its natural opponent. However, some scholars argue that it was actually the Ancient Mesopotamians or Arabic warriors who named Antares. These rival theories have mostly been disproven by the presence of the name “Antares” in ancient Greek culture.
Star Designations Vs. Star Names
Before learning how most stars are “named” and where these names come from, it is important to grasp the difference between star “designations” and “names.” All known stars have both a designation and a name.
There has been so much confusion throughout history, with certain stars being given over a dozen different names by different peoples. Because of this, scientists developed a designating system for stars that is completely separate from their names.
A star’s designation is formed from a unique combination of letters and numbers that no other star can have. As an example, the star “Fomalhaut” has a designation of HD 21695. These designations are helpful because there is no feasible way that all of the roughly 100 billion stars in our galaxy could be named. Using computers to give stars unique designations helps scientists a tool to refer to stars.
So, designations, not names, are actually how most scientists prefer to talk about stars. However, designations aren’t memorable, and in the last few decades, giving proper names to stars that the public can appreciate has taken on greater importance.
How new Stars are named
Many stars have been known to science for hundreds or even thousands of years. These stars most often have names that are carried over from when they were first discovered. However, scientists constantly discover new stars that need to be named.
When a new star is discovered, the person who discovers it usually gets to name it. In this case, stars sometimes get bulky or ugly names. Astronomers who discover new stars often put their last name on it, followed by a selection of numbers.
The name must be accepted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU exists to help with cataloging and remembering star names. Many scientists will think they’ve discovered a star only to realize that it has been named for many years.
In 2016, the IAU decided to let the public have input on naming stars. Because there are over 100 billion stars in the galaxy, there are plenty of known stars that scientists lack the time and energy to name. Every year, the IAU’s Working Group on Star Names holds a contest for naming new stars.
This contest is known as the “Name Exo Worlds” contest. Since its inception, the IAU has used the contest to name over 500 bright stars. The “names” for these stars don’t replace their number and letter designation. Rather, they give astronomers and the public a way to colloquially refer to stars.
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IAU Naming Guidelines
In its contest for naming new stars, the IAU doesn’t accept just any submissions. The IAU prioritizes names that come from a region’s cultural or historical background. Names that preserve world heritage are strongly encouraged. The IAU has recently named stars from Australian, Hindu, Coptic, and Polynesian traditions. In these cases, new stars were named in a similar fashion to how certain cultures named stars throughout history.
Star names from history
While new stars are discovered all the time, there are millions of stars that already have names derived from history. Usually, these names are borrowed from historical attempts to classify and name certain stars by different cultures.
Some stars still use the original Arabic star names. Arabian cultures published books containing the names of some stars as far back as 964 CE. Other stars use Nordic names or Latin names. In these cases, star names are most often derived from a culture’s mythology. Many ancient cultures found a link between their deities and the solar system.
Historical efforts to consolidate Star names
One of the first traceable efforts to consolidate star names came from Johann Bayer in 1603, a German astronomer who introduced the Greek-letter naming system for stars. This naming system is still used by some stars today. Bayer named stars by the constellation they are in. The brightest star was alpha, and then used the rest of the Greek alphabet to classify the rest of the stars accordingly.
However, there is an issue with this. There are billions of stars and only 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. To try and solve this, people have come up with dozens of other star naming schemes throughout history.
Other Star Naming Methods
In more recent history, there have been a number of attempts to name stars according to various number schemes.
The Henry Draper Catalog from Harvard in 1910 named 225,300 stars with number combinations. These stars were given HD and HDE numbers depending on their classification. In 1908, Harvard produced another catalog that gave stars “HR numbers” instead of HD or HDE numbers.
In 1966, the SAO system was created by the Smithsonian Institute. This system and many other subsequent star-naming schemes have used various names to refer to different stars, mostly with number designations. Many of the names given to these stars by various publications are still used to this day.
Because of the overwhelming amount of stars, scientists have had to jumble together many different naming methods for stars. All known stars have both a name and a numerical designation.
Stars known throughout history usually have one agreed-upon name that came from some ancient culture. These names usually have ties to that culture’s mythology. In more recent history, scientists named stars with number schemes that are classified by the size and type of star.
New stars are usually named by the scientist who discovered them. New names must be accepted by the IAU. In 2016, the IAU began allowing the public to submit names for stars that drew from a region’s cultural heritage.
All of these naming methods are compiled together to make a comprehensive map of the galaxy surrounding our planet.