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When You Wish Upon, or Name, a Star for Christmas

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I inevitably start hearing advertisements for an odd sort of gift: “name a star after someone.” Perhaps you’ve begun hearing these advertisements, too, and perhaps you’ve even gone and named a star after someone. Naming a star after someone is certainly a unique gift, especially for a person who seems to have everything, and stars have a very symbolic connection to Christmas, e.g. the Star of Bethlehem. But every year, I am puzzled by one thing: is the name legally binding? Well, this year, I decided to look it up.

It turns out, the authority for naming astronomical objects is the International Astronomical Union (IAU), of which the United States is an adhering member. I use the term “authority” somewhat loosely, however. Specifically, the IAU is an international organization comprised of various classes of members, and its rules are only binding on its members. I even use the term “binding” loosely, because there isn’t exactly a treaty involved, it’s more like an “if you want to sit at our table, you have to follow our rules” type of situation. As stated on the IAU’s website, “[t]he names approved by the IAU represent the consensus of professional astronomers around the world and national science academies, who as ‘Individual Members’ and ‘National Members’, respectively, adhere to the guidelines of the International Astronomical Union.” The star names approved by the IAU include alphanumeric designations, which all stars have (e.g. HR 7001), and proper names (e.g. Vega), which only a few distinguished stars have due to their cultural, historical, or astrophysical significance. However, the IAU does not sell star names in commercial transactions and does not recognize any names so sold. So, who does?

Star naming businesses exist all over the world, and the star names they sell are merely kept in a commercial star name registry, completely independent of the IAU. Some of these businesses share a joint registry, which reduces the probability that Company A and Company B both sell the naming rights to the same star. Nevertheless, there are some star naming businesses that keep their own entirely independent registries, so you cannot really have complete assurance that no one else has or will assign another name to a star you have paid to name. In any case, you can be sure that there is or will be at least an alphanumeric designation assigned by the IAU. In effect, when you buy a star name, what you are really buying is a commitment from the specific company you are transacting with to record your star’s name in its own registry and to not record any other name in that registry for that star.

So before you decide to gift someone a star name this Christmas, take a moment to reflect on what that gift actually represents. If you and your intended recipient would be adequately pleased with the concept, then by all means, gift away! But if the true nature of this gesture diminishes its luster, then may I suggest making a charitable donation in your recipient’s name instead? Many charities will provide a written acknowledgment of the donation and whose name it was made in, which gives you something to, well, give. And how would you wrap a star, anyway?

Merry Christmas!

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