Date: December 2, 2011

Title: Naming Stars

Podcasters: David V. Black, Mazie J., Cali L., and Tia S.

Organization: Walden School

Link: For more information on the Astrobiology class at Walden School and projects we are working on, visit our blog at:

Description: Since ancient times people have been fascinated by the stars and the patterns they seem to make in the night sky. In this podcast, students in the Astrobiology class at Walden School of Liberal Arts in Provo, Utah describe the four main methods for naming stars, including common names based on Greek and Arabic myths, the Bayer System, the Flamsteed System, and various star catalogs.

Bio: Walden School of Liberal Arts is a K-12 charter school in Provo, Utah. The astrobiology class is new this year. Taught by David V. Black, the course focuses on the definition of life, the ingredients that are necessary for life to begin, where those ingredients may be found in our solar system, our quest to find habitable worlds orbiting nearby stars, and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. In addition to researching and recording these podcasts, the astrobiology students are also working with students in our 3D animation class to create a series of animations on the origin, evolution, and selenography of Earth’s moon for the Center for Lunar Origin and Evolution in Boulder, CO.

David Black has taught astronomy, chemistry, and multimedia courses at the high school level for over 20 years. He has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Educator and an Educator Facilitator for the NASA Explorer Schools program at JPL. This year, he won third place nationally in the Mars Education Challenge sponsored by Explore Mars, Inc. and the National Science Teacher Association. He is a frequent presenter at state and national science and technology teacher conferences. To contact David Black with questions about our projects, please e-mail him at:

Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” has been sponsored by NO ONE. Please consider sponsoring a day or two so we can continue to bring you daily “infotainment”.


Mazie: This is Mazie, Cali and Tia at the Walden School of Liberal Arts in Utah.

Tia: Have you ever looked up at the night sky in a secluded place and wondered about the millions of stars? Perhaps the question of how they got their names or why the names are so different? Who gives the stars their names in the first place?

Astronomers have devised numbering and lettering systems to come up with names, but there are thousands of ways to name stars. For time’s sake, we are going to focus on only a few of the main ways to name stars. The four main ways to name stars are the common names, the Bayer system, the Flamsteed numbering system, and the star catalogs such as BD and CD, Ross, Luyten, and Henry Draper.

Mazie: Almost every bright star has a common name, most likely the name you would read if you opened up a basic textbook. These are the first names of the stars originating from pre-historic times. They were usually named after mythological creatures or something else in mythology. These star names are usually in the languages Arabic, Latin or Greek. One of the cool things about the common naming system is that almost all of the names translate very literally. For instance, the star Tarf in the constellation Cancer latterly translates to: The Tip of the Crab. The star Zuben Eschamali in Libra actually means the “northern claw” because it forms the claw of the Scorpion. Names like these for stars give us all kinds of ideas about how people thought about stars and constellations hundreds or thousands of years ago. Some of the common names for stars are so old we don’t even know how they translate anymore. An example would be the star Sirius in the constellation Canis Major.

Cali: A man by the name Johann Bayer created the Bayer naming system. He named stars by what constellation they were in and how bright they were using Greek letters. So Alpha Centauri would be the brightest stat in the constellation of Centaurus. This system worked until they noticed that there were more than 24 stars in a constellation. When they noticed that, they used upper and lowercase Greek letters so that they could continue using this naming system. But when we invented telescopes that could see even further and in more detail, we noticed that there were even more stars. Which meant that we needed a new naming system.

The Flamsteed system is a lot like the Bayer system except John Flamsteed used Arabic numbers. Instead of being named by how bright they are, they were numbered by their position across a constellation.

Mazie: One of the most important pre-photographic star catalogs was the BD or Bonner Durchmunsterung. The BD catalog was created and published in Bonn, Germany in about 1852. The BD star catalog collected views of about 320,000 stars in the Northern Sky and in some of the Southern Sky. The BD was then enhanced by the Südliche Durchmusterung (SD). It was further supplemented by the Cordoba Durchmusterung, consisting of 580,000 stars, which began to be compiled at Córdoba, Argentina in 1892 and covers declinations -22 to -90. Lastly, the Cape Photographic Durchmusterung, consisting of 450,000 stars in 1896, compiled at the Cape, South Africa, covers declinations -18 to -90.

There have been other catalogs created for specialized purposes by particular astronomers. Most of the nearby stars, which are mostly red dwarfs, were discovered by astronomers who were specifically looking for them. For example, the second closest star system to us is called Barnard’s Star, named after the American astronomer E. E. Barnard who discovered it in 1916, and the third closest system is Wolf 359, named after the German astronomer Max Wolf, who discovered it in 1917. Other catalogs are the Lalande, Lacaille, Luyten, Ross, and Struve catalogs. Astronomers prefer to use the Henry Draper designation of a star, as that catalogue also gives spectroscopic information, but as the Durchmusterungs cover more stars and are often cross-referenced, they are sometimes still used. To avoid confusion, most astronomers and astronomy software often include the Hipparcos number from the catalog created for the Hipparcos satellite. Even with all these catalogs though, will we never be able to name all of the stars, but we can give it our best shot.

Tia: There are millions of stars, and humans have been naming them for longer than we can remember. We will continue naming stars forever since there are so many in the sky. Our habit of naming stars has gotten so out of hand that bogus websites have started letting you buy and name stars. Don’t do it, it’s a hoax. The only organization that can name stars is the International Astronomical Union. And they don’t sell stars.

End of podcast:

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