Selling the Night Sky… The Star Wheel

Star WheelAn Observatory 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 $50. He’d promise to name a plug after anyone whose check didn’t bounce.  Then he’d send that person a lovely certificate and a map with the location of the hydrant on it. Finally, he’d file his ‘Fireplug Registry’ with the Library of Congress just to make it really good and official.

Needless to say, much to his wife’s regret, this fellow is still an astronomer and hasn’t yet moved to the south of France. John Houseman is famous for saying that to make something really big, you must earn it the old-fashioned way, with hard work.

Capitalism in Astronomy

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 dealers 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.

We know, because dozens of you show up at the Observatory with your charts asking for a peek at ‘your star’. The truth is, no one is ever going to call SAO11392 by the name Rufus Q. Fishynoggin, or any other name for that matter.

There Are Billions Of Stars

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 given catalog numbers. They are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an internationally sanctioned consortium of the world’s astronomers.

The ‘official registry’ spoken of by the dealers (and by the way, there are several, so ‘your star’ may have as many names as there are dealers) 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), nor any other Observatory, including us.

A friend of mine once 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 Route 66. It seems many of you 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 anyone can become familiar with the night sky.

Sky Publishing

Sky Publishing Corp. in Massachusetts, the same folks who publish Sky and Telescope Magazine, produce a marvelous little gizmo (those clever Yankees) which will give you a current picture of the night sky once you dial in the date and time. We call it a Star Wheel. And it’s 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 mine for years, and find it indispensable in writing this newsletter. 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. And other latitudes are also available.

Parts of this article appear in a 1988 printing of the New York Times.