Professional astronomers are busy people. Some are mapping distant galaxies, others are listening for aliens and more still are searching for habitable planets — which, it seems, we might one day need. But on occasion, they're also called upon to do something that shouldn't require a PhD: find the stars that people have "purchased" online.
But even if you dish out the cash, you won't actually own the star or even its name. What you're buying is a piece of decorative paper and a place in the company's private registry — which, if you're wondering, no governmental or scientific agency uses (the International Astronomical Union is the only organisation that can officially name stars.)
And apparently, you might have trouble finding the star, too.
"As astronomers, we often get these questions about how can we find someone's star", said Karen Masters, an astrophysicist at Haverford College. "And so we end up having to do tech support for these companies".
Masters receives about an inquiry a month and guesses that nearly every professional astronomer has fielded similar requests.
The companies sell a romantic idea: Name a star after a loved one and you can look up into the sky and think of them every time you see it for decades to come. Yet only around 2500 stars are visible to the naked eye and companies are selling millions of them. The rest require telescopes to see — and even then, these stars can be incredibly difficult to find.
Britt Scharringhausen, an astronomer at Beloit College, has received a dozen or so of these inquiries.
On one occasion, a family asked for help finding a star named after their deceased relative, but the company-provided coordinates weren't precise enough — a common problem, she said.
"I found a pretty picture of a starfield and circled the most beautiful one", she said. "I did not sign up to become a professional crusher of dreams".
Even if Scharringhausen had found the family's star, however, they still may have been disappointed. Remember, Baldari said, these stars are incredibly dim. "People think they're going to see something bright and scintillating", she said. "But even if you get someone to find your star, it's just going to be a teeny, unimpressive dot in an eyepiece".
And a typical backyard telescope may not be much help, either.
"Even if the coordinates are correct, the average person is not going to have the ability to use this system to find the star", said Rori Baldari, the vice president of Amateur Astronomers Association of New York, who's also been asked for help.
Unless, she said, "you have a computerised telescope and know how to use it, which requires a certain level of patience and skill". (Not to mention money.)
Of course, that's certainly not what some companies will have you believe. On the homepage of the Germany-based Starling Star Registry, for example, there's a photo of a couple pointing at "their" brightly shining star, called "Sarah", next to a full moon, which somehow doesn't drown out the object's twinkle. And Star-registration.com claims that its stars are visible without a telescope.
Baldari said this marketing is misleading.
"These companies are implying that you can go out at night and say 'Honey, there's our star,' but it's not going to happen", she said. "I'm not sure anybody has a star that's visible to the naked eye".
An International Star Registry spokesperson told Gizmodo that it does not claim to let people name visible stars and all of the stars it registers "can be viewed using Worldwide Telescope in lieu of being highly experienced with a telescope or having access to a computerised telescope. We understand that most people are not located in a designated 'dark sky' area for optimal star viewing, nor do they have the same access and experience that a professional astronomer does".
A Name a Star spokesperson said, "We have named many stars in the visible range, but that being said we also explain to customers that unless you are in a very dark area you won't be able to see even the lower magnitude stars". The company said it recommends that customers "use a telescope with a star finder program, or find their star on Google Sky".
"All the stars we baptise are visible to the naked eye", said a spokesperson for Starling Star Registry. "But it is true that it is not easy to find a particular star if you have never dealt with it before. In particular, it must be noted that not all stars are visible in all seasons and that the sky must be as clear as possible. Moreover, it is often more difficult in the city than in the countryside, as caused by e.g. light pollution".
Star-registration.com did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
As long as someone isn't paying much to name a star, Scharringhausen said, "perhaps it's worth the reward if the customers enjoy astronomy and take a moment to contemplate their place in the universe".
Still, there are far better ways to spend money. Choose a star in your favourite constellation and buy a photo of it, Masters suggested. "You don't need to pay a bit of money to a company to say that you own it", she said.
Or if you're looking for something romantic, take your date to a local astronomy event, said Baldari, who runs a stargazing night at High Line park in NYC. And if you really want to see the cosmos in a brilliant display, take Scharringhausen's advice: head to a planetarium. There, you won't have trouble finding stars — and astronomers will be happy to help.