By Mike P. Usher
It’s been a couple of years since we have discussed star names. There are only about a couple of hundred stars that have actual proper names; the vast majority are only known by catalog numbers. Of the two hundred stars that do have names only about two dozen are in common use by astronomers. The charts attached to this article have a lot more names displayed than are in actual daily use; these names are only of historical interest and are useful mainly for amazing your friends with your intimate knowledge of the sky.
Instead, stars are known by their catalog designations. Among naked eye stars there are two in common use, the Bayer and Flamsteed catalogs.
The Bayer catalog is the oldest and was first published in 1603 by the German astronomer Johann Bayer. He assigned a lower case Greek letter to each star in a constellation, starting with alpha, beta, gamma and so on combined with the Latin name of the constellation in the genitive case. In this scheme we get designations such as Alpha Centauri, which in English might be translated as “Alpha of Centaurus”. Typically, Bayer assigned the brightest star in the constellation as alpha and worked his way down to dimmer stars – but not always. Occasionally he would use other schemes or even assign letters apparently at random. When Bayer ran out of Greek letters (there are only 24 of them) he switched to lower case Latin letters then upper-case Latin letters. His original list contained 1,534 stars out of about the 6,000 visible to the naked eye.
Some of the slack was taken up by John Flamsteed in 1712 when his catalog was published without his permission by Edmond Halley (famous for calculating the orbit of Halley’s comet) and Isaac Newton. Flamsteed used a scheme that seems more modern to us in the 21st century; he assigned a number to every visible star in a constellation working his way from east to west. Using Flamsteed’s system there are stars called 3 Lyrae and 61 Cygni.
It is important to note that a number of companies claim the ability to name a star for you or someone you designate for a fee. By international treaty, no company has the ability to name any heavenly body – all names are given by the International Astronomical Union. The IAU does not assign names to stars and has no plans to do so in the future.
See you next time!
Mr. Usher is President of the Everglades Astronomical Society which meets the second Tuesday each month at 7:00PM in the Norris Center, Cambier Park, Naples.