University Lowbrow Astronomers

Mark Explains Again

again by Mark Deprest
Printed in Reflections:  June, 1997.


A friend of mine asked me why the comet’s name was “Hale-Bopp” and people at the public open houses are always asking if and why something has a particular name. Well, here is the Official poop!

There are commercial firms who will, for a sum, prepare certificates which appear to name a star, or other celestial body, after someone living or dead.  My wife and daughter got me one of these for my birthday and we have had a few people come up to the observatory and ask us to show them “their star.” Unfortunately the name so-given has no authorization and will not be used by astronomers.

The only official body which can give names to astronomical objects is the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU has asked astronomers not to further the activities of these firms.

All official names have to be adopted by the IAU. There are certain rules which have to be followed in the official names allocated to different types of object; some of these are outlined below.

Stars - Traditional names for the brightest stars come from the old Arabic names. Some bright stars have either Flamsteed numbers or Greek letters assigned originally by Bayer. Other stars are generally catalog number. There is a very small number of stars which are named after individual astronomers.  This is in honor of the named astronomer’s outstanding work on that particular star.

Comets - Comets are named after their discoverers. Sometimes there is more than one independent discoverer and the comet then generally bears their combined names. In addition to this name comets are given a provisional number which indicates the year of discovery and their order of discovery.  Later a permanent number is given which indicates the year of perihelion passage and the order in that year.

Minor planets - The naming of minor planets is complex. The earliest discoveries were given names from classical mythology and from contemporary life. Nowadays the privilege of naming a new minor planet rests with the discoverer. Each is also given a provisional number indicating when it was found and, after its orbit has been determined, it is given a permanent number. Providing that there is no duplication more or less any name may be used (for instance the 4 members of the Beatles have minor planets named after them and the John Le Carre character, Smiley, has been suggested for the furthest known minor body in the solar system).

Planetary and lunar features - The naming of the features on the various planets and their moons has been undertaken using different themes for each with attempts being made to keep the themes within some kind of framework.  For example, all of Jupiter’s satellites are named after mythical loves of Zeus, the moons of Uranus are fairies and/or Shakespearean women and the features on the surface of Venus are all named after famous women (all deceased, non-political and non-religious).

Other Objects - Other objects are given catalog names. Some of the catalogs have the discoverer’s name (The Messier Catalog), while others take the name of the discovering institution or telescope (The Hubble Guide Star Catalog), or simply that of the person or people or institution making the catalog (The Caldwell Catalog).


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