Astronomy can truly inspire people with incredible pictures of the majestic universe. But when it comes to naming things, more often than not we are stuck with things resembling phone numbers. There are too many stars out there, so numbers work much better than names.
Some stars, though, are more memorable. So the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has started the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN), with the precise scope of formalizing the common names of a few hundred stars.
Some of the stars formally named today are already known by their common names like Proxima Centauri (technically Alpha Centauri C), Polaris (Alpha Ursa Minor), and Vega (Alpha Lyrae), while for others the WGSN found historical nicknames from many different cultures.
Some may roll their eyes thinking this is an exercise in futility, but it’s important to make official even names that have long been established in pop-culture, as it helps maintain the astronomical heritage of the human race. There’s also another reason: the IAU has started naming exoplanets, so why not stars?
“Since the IAU is already adopting names for exoplanets and their host stars, it has been seen as necessary to catalogue the names for stars in common use from the past, and to clarify which ones will be official from now on,” said Eric Mamajek, chair and organiser of the WGSN, in a statement.
So the brightest star in Pisces will just be known as Fomalhaut rather than its other 30 names that have been used over the years. Even stars like Sirius or Betelgeuse were lacking an official international spelling until very recently. The catalog will also make sure that common names are not used for multiple astronomical objects.
The first 227 approved names can be seen in the official WGSN catalog. The group is also planning to define the rules, criteria, and process to name stars, exoplanets, and other objects. The naming is also not expected to be exclusive to professional astronomers. Just like exoplanet naming, members of the general public will be involved in giving a bit more flair to the alphanumeric designation of stars.