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Naming Stars

October 9, 2016

As darkness falls this evening, some bright stars with famous names are in good view. Arcturus is low in the west, with Antares, the heart of the scorpion, even lower in the southwest. And the stars of the Summer Triangle crown the sky — Vega, Deneb, and Altair.

These names have been around for thousands of years. But astronomers didn’t make them official until this summer.

The names were approved by the Working Group on Star Names. It’s a committee of the International Astronomical Union, which approves names for all astronomical objects.

The committee was set up to provide standardized names for bright stars and those that have scientific or historic significance. The first step is to make well-known names official. So names like Arcturus and Vega were some of the first to be adopted. The committee is scouring astronomy history to come up with even more names.

It’s also come up with some early guidelines for adopting new names. All stars have catalog designations, but most of them have no proper names. The guidelines say that names should reflect astronomical and cultural heritage, they should be pronounceable, and they shouldn’t be too long. Commercial, political, and military names are out. And just so you don’t waste your time suggesting it, they won’t pick the names of your pets, either.

The committee will publish groups of star names as they’re approved — making official many of the names that people have been using for centuries.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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