Maybe you’ve heard those radio commercials. The announcer says, “If you’re looking for a perfect gift for that special someone … then have a star named after them!”
The International Star Registry is still in business. More than 30 years ago, when I first saw their advertisements, I thought that Ira Downings of Toronto, the person behind it, would make a quick buck and then vanish. I was wrong. After he sold the franchise to U.S. entrepreneur Phyllis Mosele, the now Illinois-based outfit grew bigger than ever, especially after adding those radio commercials.
They’ve dispensed over a half million stars since the enterprise began in 1979. It’s so lucrative that their lawyers have to fend off other star-naming wannabes.
According to their general manager, they peak during Christmas holidays and Valentine’s Day, and no surprise: The gift is both impressive and romantic. It lets you turn to the person you love, sweep your hand toward the heavens and declare “Up there, sweetheart, is a star that now bears your name forever.” Talk about scoring points.
But you can’t gesture too precisely, since the star they give you is so dim it’s not even visible through binoculars; they ran out of naked eye stars decades ago.
Can You Really Name a Star?
The answer to this question is … in the eye of the beholder.
Yes, anyone can give anything a name of their own. Whether it’s your car, house, or pet rock, you may give it a name that you like.
And, no, star names can not be “sold.” Only the International Astronomical Union officially names stars. Some stars have names passed down through the ages. Most stars named by the IAU simply have numbers and coordinates. The IAU hasn’t taken on any new names for stars for years and probably won’t again.
So, what about these services that “sell” stars? It’s an interesting story. In 1998, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs issued a violation notice to the International Star Registry. You’re not supposed to sell something you don’t own, and the ISR is not an astronomical body of any kind, let alone the one that officially names things.
For $54 (much more if framed), purchasers receive a one-page star chart with a single dot circled, and a fancy parchment proclaiming that henceforth this star will be known as Brittany, or whatever.
But no astronomer, no observatory, no actual star atlas, nobody remotely connected with astronomy will ever call this star “Madison” even if it explodes into a supernova that gains worldwide attention. Who then, will identify the star with your name? Only that company.
The reason they beat the rap and stayed in business is that there really is no law against renaming anything, as long as you avoid trademarks or celebrity names.
In short, it’s a novelty gift. No harm. If you’re indeed starry-eyed, this is indeed a gift that encourages others to look up at the beautiful night sky. However, instead of “buying” a star, it might be better to adopt a star with a non-profit which gives the money to research.
Or, just do what we do—watch them twinkle—and wonder!