So maybe you received a star for Christmas. It’s possible, because googling ‘how to buy a star’ returns thousands of results of online stores that tell you a certain dot in the sky is now ‘your star’. The same goes for craters on Mars or patches of land on the moon. Unfortunately though, all these gifts are fake.
There’s no difficulty in choosing a cheap company that can buy a star for you.
A package will usually consist of a piece of paper, a ‘certificate’ written in nice cursive characters claiming you are the offiial owner of a certain star. Usually, a package also contains a star chart and some other goodies like pens or keychains, so it usually makes the 30 to 50 euros ‘worth it’.
After you buy the star (whether it’s for yourself or someone else), the coordinates of that star will be entered into the company’s own database, so that no one else can claim the same star. Not that that’s likely to happen – there’s about a 100 trillion stars in the Milky Way alone, and there’s pretty much an infinite number outside of it, so any given company is not likely to ‘run out’ of stars to sell off.
And even should that be the case, a certain company’s database means literally nothing to anyone but that same company. If a competing company wants to sell you the same star some random bloke from London just bought, well, they pretty much can.
Determining a price
It’s obviously hard to determine a price for something precious as a star, but the current going rate seems to be around the 35 to 50 dollar range.
Now you’d think that certain stars would warrant a higher price than others. Obviously, a Red Giant should be more expensive than a Brown Dwarf. Or maybe distance should be a factor: A star that’s observable with the naked eye should probably be more expensive. Right?
Unfortunately, not one company makes this distinction. There are certain price packages, but those vary from a certificate that’s framed, or the certificate might be of a higher quality – but ultimately, it doesn’t matter which star you get.
This is different in the case of craters. There’s definitely a wide array of prices available, all to do with the actual size of the crater. I mean, look at the prices from the famous Lunar Registry, which sells off ‘moon real estate’. There’s plenty of other companies that do just this, like Moon Estates and …. The former picked up some fame a few years ago when several news outlets suddenly picked up one its business model.
Another (in)famous case is Uwingu, a name you might also link to the Dutch Mars One. Uwingu is known most for selling off craters on Mars, with prices varying from 5 dollars for a small hole in the grond to 5,000 dollars for a massive crater you can see with a good telescope. Soon as you buy such a crater, your name is added to the Uwingu Index, an online repository that publicly displays all craters that have been ‘sold’ to Uwingu.
A few years back, Uwingu went in cahoots with the Dutch Mars One, a company that has the ambitious (and quite unrealistic) goal of sending 4 colonists on a one way trip to Mars in 2023. That means that, should the Mars One-missions actually launch (which is doubtful), the colonists will take a map of all of Uwingu’s Mars craters with them to the Red Planet. This generated the necessary attention for both companies.
To be fair, Uwingu is not in it just for the money. The company has set up a trust fund that divides money among young teams of astronomers to support new scientific research, so it’s not all one big trap.
As old as the world. Or the universe
The scam is not new. As far back as 1979, companies such as Moon Estates have been selling off expensive gift packages under the pretense of selling a piece of the skies.
Since then, dozens of companies have popped up with the same dubious business plan. It’s a smart one too, in a way. The Milky Way alone has no less than a 100 billion stars – selling them for 40 quid a piece, you’d think the companies have struck gold. Add the hundreds of thousands of craters on the moon and on Mars, and you can see the attraction in selling aerial property.
The companies that sell space go through great lengths to defend the legality and authenticity of their ‘product’, though none of them have more rights to sell the moon than you or me.
Take Dennis Hope, who founded Moon Estates in 1980. Hope said he studied the 1960 Treaty For Peaceful Use Of Outer Space, found that no country could own the moon or any other celestial bodies, and somehow decuded that meant that anyone could lay claim to the moon. He said he ‘sent a letter to the UN’ but got no response – so he’s within his lawful rights to own the moon.
So, who CAN name a star?
If all star-buying companies are scams, who actually does own the universe?
No one does. However, the naming of stars and comets and basically just about anything in the sky is the task of the International Astronomical Union, an international and independent collaboration of astronomers, universities and space agencies.
It’s this Union that decides the name of a new found star or asteroid, which is usually a really boring name that consists of random numbers and letters. In most cases, the names of the astronomers that discovered the star or comet will be given to it as well – think about ESA’s Rosetta mission, where a probe landed on comet 67P/Churmyov-Geramisenko. The comet is named after Klim Churmyov and and Svetlana Geramisenko.
It was the same IAU that warned sternly against ‘space sellers’ a while back. The organisation published a blog post in which it wrote about star naming and how it’s simply not real.
Until recently, the IAU has been a staunch opponent of letting people name celestial bodies, but in more recent years the organisation has realized that having exclusive rights on star names doesn’t make them very loved and asking for help can make more people interested in astronomy.
Rules and regulations
That’s why in 2013 it decided to open the process (PDF) of naming exoplanets and such to the general public – with a few caveats. Obviously, names should not contain obscenities, but more interesting is that the names can’t have ‘any commercial nature’, so don’t expect a planet called Snickers any time soon.
Names should also be pronouncable in as many languages as possible and ‘serve humanity’, whatever that means. But, all rules and regulations aside, it’s still the IAU that has the final vote in naming a body, so don’t get too creative. And, ultimately, all stars will still have pretty forgettable names like HD 189715b.
Ultimately, there’s only one real way to have a star named after you: Discover it yourself. Or become really, really, REALLY good friends with an astronomer.