Official Names Approved for 86 More Stars

Official Names Approved for 86 More Stars

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The International Astronomical Union has given its official approval for 86 additional star names.

Sigma Canis Majoris, Unurgunite

Sigma Canis Majoris (marked red) is now named Unurgunite, the Boorong name for an ancestral figure who fights the Moon. This Aboriginal Australian name represents one of the most ancient star names in the IAU catalog.
Torsten Borger / CC 3.0

Following up on last year's list of 227 official star names, the International Astronomical Union has standardized names for 85 more naked-eye stars and one very important telescopic star.

Ever since its inception in 1919, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has been responsible for the names of solar-system objects, as well as features on those objects. And in a very important series of resolutions from 1922 to 1930, it approved standard spellings, abbreviations, and definitions for the 88 official constellations. But the IAU stayed out of the star-naming game until very recently.

It was the discovery of exoplanets that broke down the barrier. Within our solar system, major planets have familiar names like Earth and Jupiter, and minor planets have both numbers and names (e.g. 1 Ceres, 4 Vesta, or 99942 Apophis), so it seemed as though it would be fun to do the same for a few planets in stellar systems besides our own. In 2015, the IAU approved names for 31 exoplanets.

But it would hardly do for an exoplanet with a cozy name like Meztli to orbit a star with no better designation than HD 104985. So at the same time that it approved those exoplanet names, the IAU approved 19 names for the stars around which those exoplanets orbit. That included five traditional names, notably Pollux and Fomalhaut, as well as 14 newly invented names. (Actually, many of those names are quite old, but they had never before been associated with stars, just as Ceres wasn't associated with astronomy before it was assigned to the first-discovered asteroid.)

But that decision created new problems. It seemed very strange for the IAU to approve 14 fabricated star names and say nothing at all about star names like Sirius that have been used by professional and amateur astronomers for centuries. And it's hard to justify making the name of Pollux official while denying the same status to its twin star Castor. So in 2016, the IAU's Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) gave official status to 208 additional star names. That included 207 traditional names for stars readily visible to the unaided eye plus one star discovered and named in the 20th century: Proxima Centauri, our Sun's closest known neighbor in space.

Now the Working Group on Star Names has proved that it's still hard at work: you can see the newly approved 86 star names here. About half of them, like the earlier set, come from the Western tradition but were for various reasons too problematic to approve in 2016. (Common problems include stars with multiple names and names associated with multiple stars.) But there are lots of prominent stars that have no names in the Western tradition, so to fill in the blanks, the WGSN drew from other cultures, namely Australian Aboriginal, Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, Polynesian, and South African.

In addition, the WGSN approved another name that was invented in the 20th century for a faint, nearby star, namely Barnard's Star. Of all the stars that sound as though they're some astronomer's personal property (for instance, Tabby's Star), Barnard's Star is almost certainly the most prominent. It’s famed in history, science, and science fiction as the fourth closest star to the Sun (after the three components of the Alpha Centauri system) and the star with the highest known proper motion.

It will be interesting to see where the WGSN goes from here. There are still plenty of prominent stars with no IAU-approved name, the brightest being 1.7-magnitude Gamma Velorum. It does have a couple of obvious candidate names, including Regor, one of the three star names fabricated by NASA from the names of the astronauts who died in the horrific Apollo 1 fire. Another one of those is Navi, for Gamma Cassiopeiae, the brightest star north of the celestial equator with no current IAU-approved name.

Personally, I think the WGSN should approve Regor and Navi. The IAU has already approved two similar names, Sualocin and Rotanev, which originated in 1814 in the Second Palermo Star Catalog and have since passed into common usage. They are derived by reading backward the Latinized name (Nicolaus Venator) of Niccolò Cacciatore, coauthor of the catalog. It seems to me that the Apollo 1 astronauts are far more deserving of commemoration than Niccolò Cacciatore.

I could also imagine the IAU requesting public suggestions for prominent stars that don't have a name in any well-documented culture, just as it did for exoplanets and exoplanet stars. I have mixed feelings about those original fabricated exoplanet-star names, but now that the IAU has started, I can't see turning back. It would be really nice for all stars to have names at least down to magnitude 2.50. What do you think?