Many star names are well known to even casual sky gazers—Vega, Polaris, Betelgeuse and more. But until recently, the stars didn’t officially have any names at all. That all changed in 2016, when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) approved 227 common names for stars. And as Mariah Quintanilla at Science News reports, just last month they added another 86 sanctioned star names to the list.
While many traditional star names come from Greek, Latin and Arabic, the latest group draws from cultures around the world. For instance, as Quintanilla reports, Xamidimura in the constellation Scorpius is derived from the indigenous Khoikhoi people of South Africa, who traditionally call the star and its mate “xami di mura,” which translates to “eyes of the lion.”
Pipirima, also in Scorpius, is derived from a Tahitian legend about Pipiri and his twin sister Rehua who were carried into the sky by a stag beetle. The star Cervantes in the constellation Ara is named after the famous Spanish author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, and is orbited by exoplanets named Quijote, Dulcinea, Sancho and Rocinante—all after characters in the novel. Unurgunite in Canis Major is named after a character from a story from aboriginal people of Australia.
So why, after thousands of years of astronomy, is the IAU just now getting around to naming stars? As Tony Flanders at Sky & Telescope reports, it all has to do with exoplanets. While the IAU, which was founded in 1919, has made official decisions on what is and is not a constellation and determinations of major and minor planets and other bodies in the solar system, they faced a conundrum when astronomers began discovering planets orbiting stars outside our solar system (also known as exoplanets).
In 2015, the IAU began approving names for these exoplanets, but the planet and star names didn't quite fit. Planets with inventive name like "Orbitar" were orbiting stars with technical names like 42 Draconis. So the IAU also came up with 14 new star names at the time.
But as Flanders reports, that decision led to still more questions. For example, why did the IAU officially name an entire distant solar system after Don Quixote characters but wasn’t willing to officially acknowledge the stellar name Sirius. So in 2016, the IAU’s Working Group on Star Names relented, officially recognizing 207 traditionally used names for stars visible to the naked eye along with Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor (which is not visible to the naked eye). It also officially bestowed names on the 14 exoplanet stars for a total of 227 officially named stars.
In 2017, after identifying stars named or known in other cultures around the world, the IAU added another 86 to the roster. That list includes Australian Aboriginal peoples, Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Maya, Polynesian and South African star names, according to a press release. One star is named for a person. Barnard’s Star is a red dwarf discovered by astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard in 1916.
This will likely not be the last list of names the group releases. “The IAU Working Group on Star Names is researching traditional star names from cultures around the world and adopting unique names and spellings to avoid confusion in astronomical catalogs and star atlases,” Eric Mamajek, chair and organizer of the WGSN says in the press release. “These names help ensure that intangible astronomical heritage from skywatchers around the world, and across the centuries, are preserved for use in an era of exoplanetary systems.”
As Deborah Byrd at Earth Sky reports, while the astronomy community will likely abide by the IAU’s names, some for-profit companies like the International Star Registry have already allowed people to pay to name stars. Companies like Uwingu are also allowing the public to name Mars Craters and exoplanets. The IAU, however, maintains that it is the only Earthly body with the right to officially name objects in space, and all other names will not be recognized.
This means that all that money we spent naming a star No Direction and surrounding it with planets Harry, Zayn, Liam, Niall and Louis just went out the window.