Planet Earth

FAQ (Star Names)

No. You are obviously welcome to name whatever stars for whoever or whatever you wish (indeed many of the brightest stars have dozens of known names across many cultures). The sky belongs to everyone. You can name Vega for your favorite K-pop singer if you like.
The WGSN’s activities are summarized in its Terms of Reference with the IAU. One of the IAU’s activities over the past century is in providing consistent nomenclature for celestial objects (and setting rules for designating new objects) so as to avoid confusion in communication. WGSN’s activities currently involve cataloguing historical/cultural star names, and is doing so on behalf of the International Astronomical Union, the world’s largest professional society of astronomers whose mission “is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects through international cooperation”. Some of the names from the astronomical literature and cultural astronomy literature are adopted as unique names and added to the IAU Catalog of Star Names. Priority on which names are/were added are those that have been used in international astronomical literature in recent decades and centuries (to preserve continuity, e.g. like those found in Bright Star Catalog, popular star atlases, etc., like Vega, Sirius, etc.). Second priority on naming goes to cultural names from astronomical traditions from around the world (some going back thousands of years).
The WGSN is not accepting proposals for “new” names at this time, but we are accepting input on historical and cultural star names (and can use your help! i.e. especially ancient celestial names from cultures that do not yet appear to be represented among the ranks of the IAU Catalog of Star Names). Regions that are currently under-represented among the celestial names represented in the IAU-CSN are those from the Americas, Africa, Australia, Polynesia (efforts are underway surveying the cultural astronomy literature for groups in these regions). WGSN is surveying literally centuries of astronomical literature.

Please keep some things in mind.
(1) The number of stars named per culture, and the number recorded in easily accessible literature (books, scanned books, journal articles), varies widely by culture – ranging from zero to hundreds (e.g. Arabic).
(2) For some cultures, only names of some of the very brightest stars (e.g. brighter than 2nd magnitude) are known – but most of these already had common names and entries in the IAU Catalog of Star Names. So sometimes there are few, if any opportunities, to include a star name from some cultures because they named relatively few, if any, fainter stars that didn’t already have a common name in international astronomical literature.
(3) The WGSN’s efforts to survey the literature of celestial names from various cultures is on-going, and the IAU Catalog of Star Names will likely grow further.
(4) Rather than complain, you can actually help the IAU/WGSN by sending references with the star names and cross-identifications (e.g. Bayer designations).

Probably the exemplar of this complaint is Acrux. The name of this bright star in the ‘southern cross’ was coined by a 19th century northern hemisphere astronomer (Elijah Burritt, circa 1835). In order to avoid unnecessary confusion, the WGSN has put a premium on continuity with names that have appeared numerous times in astronomical literature in recent decades. The spellings for the adopted star names are also the spellings deemed most common in the astronomical literature in recent decades and centuries (even if the current name is seemingly an “incorrect” transliteration of a term from another language; e.g. “Betelguese” is almost completely unrecognizable from the Arabic phrase which would now be transliterated as “Yad al-Jauza'”). Note that some names with unusual origins (e.g. the famous cases of Rotanev and Sualocin), and otherwise unknown origins (Names from the 1950’s-era Becvar atlases; e.g. Achird, Hatysa, etc.), have propagated sufficiently widely in the astronomical literature over recent decades that renaming them would only cause further confusion.

 No. While WGSN has been standardizing the star names and their spellings, there has been no interest or effort to standardize pronunciations. Some of the names are corruptions of names that have been transliterated (and often mistransliterated by scribes) between multiple languages. Even for bright well-known stars like Betelgeuse, as the Wikipedia page for the star explains, there are at least four common pronunciations, none of which should like the original Arabic name (transliterated to Yad al-Jauzā’) that was the basis of the name before it become Latinized centuries ago. For suggested pronunciations, one can go to an article by George R. Davis, Jr. (1944) “The pronunciations, derivations, and meanings of a selected list of star names” or in Paul Kunitzsch & Tim Smart’s (2006) “A Dictionary of Modern Star Names: A Short Guide to 254 Star Names and Their Derivations”.

Please provide the information to WGSN via this online form. Please read the opening description first – note that WGSN already has access to numerous references on e.g. Arabic, Chinese, Indian, Polynesian, Wardaman star names. So we are particularly interested in more obscure references/sources.

This is commonly mis-stated in media stories. The short answer is No. For stars, one distinguishes “names” as either “proper names” (e.g. Sirius) or “designations” (e.g. HR 2491). While one talks about “star names”, they usually mean “proper names” (like “Sirius”), and refer separately to “stellar designations”. Stellar “designations” never go away (they just seem to multiply in the literature as new star catalogues appear!). While the Bayer “names” sound like elegant proper names, in reality they are just transliterated designations. The Bayer identifiers are a special class of astronomical designation that doesn’t follow the modern IAU guidelines (http://cdsweb.u-strasbg.fr/Dic/iau-spec.htx), but are “grandfathered” in given their ubiquity in the astronomical literature over the past four centuries (Bayer’s 1603 Uranometria). “Sirius” will always have the Bayer designation transliterated as “Alpha Canis Majoris”, along with the Bright Star Catalog designation HR 2491, and many others (see SIMBAD. The situation is somewhat analogous to planetary satellites: Neptune’s moon “Proteus” is also known by its designations “Neptune VIII” and its temporary discovery designation “S/1989 N1” – but 99.999% of the time, you’ll just hear it called by its IAU proper name “Proteus”. The same can be said of proper names for stars like “Sirius” or “Vega” (one rarely hears them referred to by their alphanumeric designations like HR 7001, HR 172167, GJ 721, etc.). The Bayer designations consist of a lower-case Greek letter and the genitive form of a constellation name (e.g. Alpha Canis Majoris). Even though the Greek letter in the Bayer designation is a lower case “alpha”, since the object is an astronomical object, it is capitalized following Sec. 6.13 of the IAU style guidelines (IAU Style Manual 1989; https://www.iau.org/static/publications/stylemanual1989.pdf), i.e. one writes “Tau Ceti” instead of “tau Ceti”. For example, “Ginan” is a “new” IAU name for the star with Bayer designation “Epsilon Crucis” (really it was originally an ancient Aboriginal Wardaman name for the star), but the Bayer designation never goes away. “Ginan” still has this designation along with many others from various star catalogs: simbad.u-strasbg.fr/simbad/sim-id?Ident=Ginan).

WGSN is looking to the past to recognize cultural and historical star names, but it is looking to the present and future to guide the usage of those names. 21st century astronomy includes multiple star systems, sometimes with exoplanets or other substellar companions. These systems are transforming from mere points of light in the sky to increasingly well-characterized stellar and exoplanetary systems, some becoming very familiar to astronomers around the world. Early in the deliberations of the WGSN, it was decided to pursue a one-name-one-object philosophy to guide the naming (although one can recognize cultural aliases for that object). For other classes of astronomical objects with IAU names like planets, moons, and asteroids, etc., the name is ascribed to a single object so that it has a (preferably) unique moniker. “Sun” describes the central bright object in our solar system, but it makes no sense for it to refer to the myriad smaller objects that orbit it also. Improved observations will break up points of light into single objects or objects with smaller bodies in orbit. Where we know there to be multiple objects, it makes sense for them to have separate names. For designations for e.g. multiple star systems, this is easily done by adding additional objects “B”, “C”, or exoplanets “b”, “c”, etc., or if a companion is split into additional components one may see a “Ba”, “Bb”, etc. There has been some external resistence to this one-name-one-object, but this represents a transition in our naming of celestial objects from what the ancients could see with their naked eye to what we can see with modern telescopes, spectrographs, and interferometers. As soon as it was clear that the IAU was transitioning to adopting proper names for exoplanets and host stars in the mid-2010s, this necessitated some clarity. Ultimately one can imagine end cases like the Alpha Centauri multiple system where the 3 stellar components (all now with IAU proper names: Rigil Kentaurus, Toliman, Proxima Centauri) eventually have their orbiting exoplanets with IAU-recognized names.

Imai is the name for the star designated Delta Crucis by the Mursi people of modern-day Ethiopia. The star Imai has some significance as when it “ceases to appear in the evening sky at dusk (around the end of August), it is said that the Omo [river] rises high enough to flatten the imai grass that grows along its banks, and then subsides.” The Mursi use a series of southern stars to mark their calendar to track seasonal flooding of the Omo river. See “Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth” by Clive Ruggles.

Guniibuu represents the mythological robin red-breast bird among the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Aboriginal peoples in modern-day New South Wales, Australia.

The Boroong clan of Wergaia from what is now Victoria, Australia called the star designated &sigma CMa “Unurgunite”, a mythological figure who battles the moon (Mityan) who attempts to seduce one of his wives (the two stars east and west – Epsilon CMa (Adhara) and Delta CMa (Wezen); Stanbridge, 1861Hamacher & Frew 2010).

Paikauhale is the Hawai’ian name for the bright star designated Tau Scorpii, just south of Antares in the heart of the constellation Scorpius (Kawena, Johnson, & Ruggles, 2015, “Na Inoa Hoku: Hawaiian and Pacific Star Names”, p.201; Puku’i & Elbert, 1986, “Hawaiian Dictionary: Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian”, p.31). In the Hawai’ian dictionary by Puku’i & Elbert (1986), the word “paikauhale” means “to go gadding about from house to house”. In another Hawai’ian dictionary (H.W. Kent, 1993, “Treasury of Hawaiian Words in One Hundred and One Categories”, p.367), “paikauhale” is listed with definition “Vagabond owning no home; house-to-house wanderer.” In some astronomical references, the star designated Tau Scorpii had the name “Alniyat” or “Al Niyat”, which was duplicative (and now considered obsolete) with the star designated Sigma Scorpii (now with IAU name “Alniyat”).

Ginan, Larawag, and Wurren are names of stars from the Aboriginal Wardaman people in modern-day Northern Territory of Australia. The names are mentioned in the book “Dark Sparklers: Yidumduma’s Aboriginal Astronomy – Northern Australia 2003” by Hugh Cairns & Bill Yidumduma Harney, and indentifications to stars with Bayer designations was done through interpretation of the night sky maps in Appendix A of “Dark Sparklers”.
Ginan (epsilon Cru) refers to a dilly bag – the “Bag of Songs” in Wardaman creation mythology.
Gudja (kappa Ser) refs to “Water Goanna” in Wardaman astronomy.
Larawag (epsilon Sco) means “clear sighting” in Wardaman astronomy.
Wurren (zeta Phe Aa) means “child” in Wardaman but in this context refers to a “Little Fish”, a star adjacent to Achernar (Gawalyan = procupine or echidna) to whom little fish provides water.

The IAU claims there are no names of individual humans given to stars. However, the current name catalogue does include such names. Here are the reasons for these exceptions:  
Cor Caroli the name “Caroli” refers to the king Charles I of England who was beheaded in 1650 and the name was given to the star when monarchy was re-established in the early 1660s. For the IAU in 2015, this appears as a traditional star name.
Barnard’s StarThe name was given in the early 20th century after the astronomer named E. E. Barnard discovered his extraordinarily high proper motion in 1916. Hundred years later, in 2016, the name was considered historical (because the current generation of astronomers learned it from their grandparant generation) and included in the catalogue.
Copernicus 2015 IAU NameExoWorlds campaign

The two Coptic star names included in the IAU catalogue are Khambalia (Bayer designation: Lambda Virginis; alias HR 5359) and Polis (Bayer designation Mu Sgr A; alias HR 6812). “Khambalia” refers to a Coptic lunar asterism (“the crooked-claw”) consisting of Iota, Kappa, and Lambda Virginis, where the “claw” refers to “the tiops of the bent claws of Scorpion extending through… Libra” (Brown 1896). In recent times, the name has been usually ascribed just to Lambda Virginis. “Polis” refers to “the foal”, referring to the stars in the bow of the Sagittarius (the Hippocentaur). In recent times, the name was usually ascribed to Mu Sagittarii (following Allen 1899), and the IAU catalogue lists the name for the brightest star Mu Sgr Aa.