Vanity Skies: Navigating Celestial Real Estate

Vanity Skies: Navigating Celestial Real Estate

Okay, so my birthday is coming up and something I am not wishing for is my name on a star. I don’t want my stargazing disrupted by a narcissistic search for my special dot of light. But then even if I wanted it, that tantalizing celestial real estate is not really on the market. Sure, many commercial enterprises like Star Registry or will take your fifty bucks and slap you—or your loved one’s name—on some star and give you a gold-framed cheesy certificate. But the International Astronomical Union, the bouncers of the star-naming universe, would not recognize it. They have posted a very stern warning on their IAU website:

As an international scientific organization, the IAU dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of “selling” fictitious star names or “real estate” on other planets or moons in the Solar System…In the past, certain such enterprises have suggested to customers that the IAU is somehow associated with, recognizes, approves, or even actively collaborates in their business. The IAU wishes to make it totally clear that any such claim is patently false and unfounded. Thus, like true love and many of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy. True, the ‘gift’ of a star may open someone’s eyes to the beauty of the night sky. This is indeed a worthy goal, but it does not justify deceiving people into believing that real star names can be bought like any other commodity.

Vanity Skies: Navigating Celestial Real Estate

Stars did actually sport monikers long ago, explains American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in this video. But nowadays, whether they are discovered by intrepid astronomers or lucky amateurs, stars are identified like fossils or library books. They are catalogued with letters and numbers and precise coordinates so that astronomers have an organized way to sort through the heavens. The Milky Way galaxy alone is a vast collection of more than 200 billion stars, planets, nebulae, clusters, dust and gas. We need these pioneering cartographers. That way, when regular humans start traveling through space we will have good road maps. Of course, when it comes to comets, a select few actually have a shot at stardom. The game is, you find the comet, you name it. Several of these icy bodies that release gas or dust and orbit the sun, have been named for those who discovered them: Hale-Bopp, Hyakutake, McNaught. Is that not the most stellar professional perk imaginable?

Still, a Boston Globe story—about a quest to name some celestial object after author George Plimpton—catalogues the naming requirements of lesser bodies and offers non-astronomers reasons to hope:

When it came to other extraterrestrial objects—moons, asteroids, or even craters—the rules started to get a lot more exciting. So-called trans-Neptunian objects, the ones beyond the Eighth planet, must be named for gods of the underworld or gods related to creation (hello, Pluto). The moons of Uranus must be named after characters from Shakespeare or Alexander Pope. Out among the moons of Jupiter, Celtic gods bump up against characters from Dante’s Inferno…Each member of Rush has a minor planet. Fantasia, Hammurabi, and Jerry Lewis are all out there. While Goldfinger is not named after the Bond film (it’s named after an astronomer), Vespa is named after the motor scooter.

Apparently, the remaining avenue for non-astronomers who seek galactic recognition is the asteroid. The rocky objects orbiting sun are smaller than a planet and bigger than a meteoroid. There’s no clear evidence of an atmosphere and they are less exciting than comets. It doesn’t seem the height of vanity to get your name on a rock zooming around the sun in an oval orbit maybe in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It’s a suitable and understated gift compared to a mighty star, don’t you think? Did you know asteroids can come in pink or yellow? You have 38 days to shop.

Jessica Portner is an award-winning journalist who has most recently worked as a staff writer for the San Jose Mercury News, where she covered health, science, and the courts. She has also written abo more


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