Selling the Night Sky

Star Wheel - Planisphere

An astronomer once had a great idea for making a fast buck. He'd nab a copy of the city's list of fire hydrants and sell them one at a time to anyone who'd send him a check for fifty dollars. He'd promise to name a plug after anyone whose check didn't bounce, and then send that person a lovely certificate and a map with the location of the hydrant on it. Then, he'd file his "Fireplug Registry" with the Library of Congress just to make it really good and official.

Needless to say, this fellow is still an astronomer and hasn't yet moved to the "south of France"! John Houseman was famous for saying that to "make it really big, you must earn it the old-fashioned way, with hard work". In his case, he was talking about money. But it works that way in astronomy, too. Long nights at the business end of a telescope aren't a myth. Immortality isn't easy. So, it is particularly distressing lately to see the unsuspecting public taken by these "star" dealers who, after exacting a fairly hefty price, promise to name a star after you.

These start hustlers promise to "record" your star in an "official star registry", that henceforth that star will be known by "your name", and that a "starchart" will show up in the mail which will point to the exact location of your star. The "star chart" part of the deal is true, because people show up at observatories with charts asking for a peek at "thier star"! The truth is, no one is EVER going to call SAO11392 by the name Rufus Q., CuddleBunny, or any other name for that matter.

There are billions of stars out there. The brightest of these were known to the ancients, and the names they gave to them are the popular names we still use today. The fainter stars are being given catalog numbers which are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an internationally sanctioned consortium of the world's astronomers. The "official registry" spoken of by TV hustlers (and there are several, so "your star" may have as many names as there are con artists) is presumably kept nowhere but in their own offices. It is neither recognized by the IAU nor the Library of Congress (which has issued its own release on this subject long ago), nor any other Observatory, that I can find...

A friend of mine told me he wouldn't know a constellation from a prune danish. Someone else said that he thought the Big Dipper was a pothole somewhere on highway 101. It seems many folks are functionally illiterate when it comes to the night sky. But it's certainly nothing to be ashamed of (they don't teach it in most schools, and most newspapers only carry astrology columns - definitely not the same thing). But there are ways in which one can become familiar with the night sky.

Sky Publishing Corp. in Massachusetts, the same folks who publish Sky and Telescope Magazine, produce a marvelous little gizmo which will give you a current picture of the night sky once you dial in the date and time. It is called a Planisphere. (Otherwise known as a Star Wheel)

A Star Wheel is a device that can be adjusted to show the appearance of the night sky for any time and date on a round star map. They can be used to identify stars and constellations but not the planets, whose positions are always changing.

And Star Wheels are easy to read... not something you have to stand on your head with in order to understand the projection. It isn't fancy... made of cardboard, it neither lights up nor whistles Twinkle, Twinkle, but it is something particularly handy. I've had one for a while now, and find it indispensable in writing this series of "Skywatch" articles. It'll even give you a fairly good approximation of when a particular constellation is due to rise - so should you, for instance, find yourself pining for Orion, you"ll find that he rises just after midnight this time of year. They are good for latitudes between 30 degrees to 40 degrees.


Or if you"d rather buy it... Sky and Telescope is prepared to sell you one for $15.95 (which includes postage I think).

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