Have you ever wondered why some stars are named after animals or plants while others are named after people?
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has cataloged over 100,000 stars. They are organized into groups called constellations, each representing a mythological figure from Greek mythology.
In this article, we will learn the names of constellations and stars as well as which ones have been named and officially recognized by NASA’s Working Group. Let’s jump in.
How Are Stars Named?
Technically, anyone can name a star. However, for a star to be used by professional astronomers, it needs to be approved by the International Astronomical Union.
The IAU is an organization that was founded in 1919 to organize astronomy conferences around the world. Today, they oversee the naming conventions for stars, galaxies, and other celestial objects.
There are currently over 100,000 stars in our galaxy alone. Of these, only about 1% have official names.
There are also thousands of planets orbiting distant stars. But most of them don’t have names yet. So, let’s focus on the stars.
Of the 100,000+ stars in our galaxy, there are roughly 2,500 named stars. This means that one out of every 50 stars is officially named.
However, there are more than 100,000 stars in the Milky Way Galaxy too. And if we include the stars in neighboring galaxies,
then the number goes up to millions. If we count the stars in the entire universe, then the total number of stars becomes billions.
So, how many stars are named? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some say there are hundreds of billions. Others say there are trillions. Still, others only base their estimate on stars in our galaxy alone.
How Many Approved Bright Star Names Are There?
Though anyone can technically give a name to a star, The Working Group was established in 2016 by Eric Mamajek.
Mamajek was an astronomer based at NASA in California, and he initiated the IAU’s official Working Group. This was a team of 19 astronomers and historians from 11 different countries.
The Working Group has since decided on standardized versions of star names in use already and has developed guidelines for choosing new star names in the era of the discovery of exoplanets.
So far, the group has approved names for over 300 bright stars, and it continues to search the world’s literature to discover even more.
The Working Group announced its first load of approved star names in 2016, and these only covered 227 stars.
The list recognized names such as Proxima Centauri, Rigil Kentaurus, and many of the star names used by navigators.
It settled any disagreements surrounding modern spellings of ancient names such as Alderamin and Fomalhaut, whose names had been spelled over 30 different ways.
These names would not replace all designations and numbers, but it meant that these stars could now be referenced using a name without causing any confusion,
and their names would not be officially reused for asteroids, moons, or exoplanets.
This naming project presented itself with an opportunity to start to officially recognize some of the celestial nomenclatures from other cultures across the globe,
that had previously been ignored or even been excluded from previous star name catalogs.
After a search in the international literature on astronomy, in 2017, the second batch of 86 named star names was released.
These came from Australian, Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, and even South African traditions.
Naming With Constellations
The sky has been divided into constellations by historic astronomers and these are based on patterns in the sky. Each name and number of the constellations varied from one-star map to the other.
Despite being almost meaningless in science, they do give reference points in the sky for astronomers.
In 1930, the constellation boundaries were adopted by the IAU, so that now every part of the celestial sphere belongs to a single constellation.
Stars are sometimes known based on their location within the constellation. For example, if a star is located near the center of its constellation, then it may be referred to as “the star in the middle.”
If a star is located far away from the center of its constellation (as seen from Earth), then it may be referred to as “the star at the edge of the constellation.”
If a star is not part of any constellation, then it is sometimes given a number instead of a name.
Examples of constellations and their stars include:
Alpha Centauri A & B – These two stars make up the famous double star system known as Alpha Centauri. It is one of the closest systems to our solar system.
Canopus – Also known as Spica, this star is located in the southern sky. It is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.
Canis Major – The Great Dog Canis Major is a large constellation that contains several bright stars. One of these stars is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
Cepheus – Cepheus is a prominent constellation in the northern sky. Its brightest star is Denebola, which is also called Alnitak.
Dorado – Dorado is a small constellation in the southern hemisphere. It contains three bright stars: Capella, Arcturus, and Vega.
Fornax – Fornax is a large constellation in the southern sky. Its brightest star, Antares, is a red giant star.
Hercules – Hercules is a large constellation in both hemispheres. It contains many bright stars, including Betelgeuse, Rigel, Bellatrix, and Procyon.
What Do People Name Stars?
Naming stars is a common practice among society, and some even gift a star to someone as a birthday present for them to name it themselves. People name stars over several things, including:
- People who contributed to astronomy and astrophysics, such as Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton,William Herschel, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and many more.
- Famous scientists, philosophers, politicians, artists, writers, musicians, athletes, religious leaders, and other famous individuals who made significant contributions to society in general.
- The constellation is shaped like something that resembles the person’s face or body part. For example, Orion represents the hunter, Taurus represents the bull, Cancer represents the crab, Aquarius represents the water carrier, Pegasus represents the winged horse, and so on.
- A star may be named for someone because it looks similar to another object with a name associated with the person. For example, there is a star called Arcturus, which means bear. It looks very much like the constellation Ursa Major, which means great bear.
- A star may be given an unusual name by its discoverer. These names usually relate to the discovery process itself, such as “discovery”, “first light”, “newcomer”, “new” or “old”.
- A star may also be named after a place where it was discovered. This includes places such as the United States, Canada, Australia, China, India, Russia, Germany, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, etc.
- Sometimes, a star may be named after a fictional character, movie, book, band, or another thing. Examples include Cygnus, Draco, Hercules, Andromeda, Perseus, Pegasus, Cassiopeia, Orion, Sirius, Canopus, Vega, Aldebaran, Regulus, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Procyon, Antares, Bellatrix, Algol, Cor Caroli, Denebola, Pollux, Arcturus.
Are Galaxies Named?
No, galaxies are not named. They are simply referred to as “galaxies”. Some people do refer to individual galaxies, but this is rare.
There are a few exceptions, such as the Andromeda Galaxy and the Whirlpool Galaxy. However, most just go by a single catalog number.
How Are Exoplanets Named?
According to the IAU, there is no system for designating exoplanets. These are the planets that orbit stars. The process of naming exoplanets,
however, has been created by the Working Group. The scientific name for the designations usually includes a proper noun or abbreviation that often corresponds to the name of the star it is orbiting.
We hope this article has answered all your questions on how many stars in the universe are named,
as well as how many bright stars the Working Group has officially named and that astronomers recognize.
The process of naming stars is an interesting topic and naming your star can be a special way of sending a little something meaningful and personal up into the night sky yourself.
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