Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 9, 2008

Do *NOT* “Buy” Stars

Filed under: scams,terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 5:41 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Introduction

Christmas is coming and so I thought this would be a somewhat timely post (yes, I realize there are other winter holidays, and I myself am Jewish, but let’s be honest here – most presents are Christmas presents).  I am also experimenting with a slightly new format for each blog post, starting with this one, so please let me know what you think about it by posting in the Comments section.

The purpose of this blog post is:  Please, PLEASE, PLEASE, do NOT try to buy stars!

 

Background

Many years ago, a company started up called the “International Star Registry” (ISR).  A few years later, a copycat company started, called “Buy the Stars” (BtS).  Over the years, a few others have cropped up, such as “Star Namer,” or “Star Deed,” but I’m mainly going to address the first two.  The basic premise behind these companies is that if you pay them a certain amount of money, they will officially register a star with your name on it, or any name on it that you want.

 

What’s Actually Going On

They’re taking your money and sending you a piece of paper that with a little experimentation you could make in Photoshop or Illustrator or your graphics program of choice.  Seriously.  That’s about it.

The only officially recognized group that can name celestial objects is the International Astronomical Union, a group of astronomers from all over the world.  They’re the ones who classify objects (like planets vs. dwarf planets) and who name objects.  They are the only group in the world that astronomers actually listen to in terms of what’s called what.

When you send either star registry company money, they will pick out a generally very faint star, one that very likely cannot be seen without the use of a telescope (usually fainter than the planet Pluto).  The faintness of the star is alluded to on both sites since neither of them actually answer the question of, “Can I see my star?”  Rather, BtS answers the question of, “Will I be able to see the constellation?” while ISR has a discussion of Visual Magnitude (the brightness scale astronomers use, where larger numbers are fainter objects).

The ISR will then compile it in their book, Your Place in the Cosmos, put it in their own database, and that’s the extent of the registration process.  However, they are at least reasonably forward about the officiality of their service, stating:

Q:  Will the scientific community recognize my star name?

A:  No.  We are a private company that provides Gift Packages.  Astronomers will not recognize your name because your name is published only in our Star catalog.  We periodically print a book called Your Place in the Cosmos © which lists the stars that we have named.

BtS is not as straight-forward, and in my own personal opinion, they are deceitful.  They do not tell you that your name will not be recognized; in answer to the question, “Do I really get a star named after me?” they state (emphasis mine):

BuyTheStars is an official star registration company and all records of stars named and sold are sent to the international star name and registry in Dallas, TX . Once you have purchased and named your star, the details are sent and permanently recorded in the database. Once this process has been completed, we verify the billing information provided to us and forward it to the international database in Dallas. Once completed, a certificate (and package) is sent out to you (or the addressee) detailing the stars [sic] location and new name. This name will be the new internationally recognized name for the star under the coordinates specified on the certificate. You can then be satisfied knowing that you (or the persons whom you named the star(s) after) will join the thousands who have already secured their place in the heavens.

Again, for clarity, this “internationally recognized name” is only recognized by their company.  It is not recognized by anyone who actually studies astronomy.

In addition, and this is more of an aside, you really should NOT buy stuff off of a website that does not know English grammar.  The apostrophe is missing in “detailing the stars location” in the text I quoted above.  In their “Why name a star with us?” page, they used the wrong homophone: “So, if your looking …” using “your” instead of “you’re.”  This may seem like a silly nit-pick, but seriously, if they write like a middle or high school student, why should you trust them with your money?

 

What’s the Harm?

This is often a question asked that’s more related to “alternative” medicine pseudoscience, like, “What’s the harm of homeopathy even if it’s just water like you say?”

The harm of “buying” these stars is two-fold.

(1)  They take your money.  The cheapest “package” on the ISR is $54.00, and the cheapest from BtS is $54.95 (at the time of writing this).  For an average family of 4, that’s half a week’s groceries, or maybe a tank of gas (as I’m writing this).  It’s also the cost of a nicely illustrated astronomy book, or maybe 2-3 paperbacks.  Or a trip to the zoo, or an amusement park.  Or a nice dinner out.  If you’re looking for a present for someone, please buy something that’s more meaningful.

(2)  Sentimentality from those who think they’re really getting a star named after them.  What I mean here is something like the following story:  Two people have been married for over 50 years, and one of them dies .  The one left is devastated, and hears from a friend that they can get a bright, shining star in the sky named after their loved one for all to see.  So they buy a package.  Later, perhaps, even a few years later, they go to a public planetarium or observatory and ask the projector operator or telescope operator to see “their” star.  What’s the operator supposed to do?  Tell them they wasted their money, they don’t actually have a star; or try to find the tiny faint object, indistinct from its neighbors; or lie to the person and point out a nice bright object and say, “Yep, that’s it, there’s ‘Fred.'”

My own personal experience with this rip-off is that my high school, a year after I graduated, “bought” three stars for students who had done well on some national test or something (I honestly don’t remember the exact reason).  That’s right, folks, public school funds, at least over $165 worth (the cost of 2 new textbooks), were spent on this.

 

Final Thoughts

Seriously, the bottom-line here is that this is a scam.  I’ll be very careful here, though – it is not a “scam” in the legal sense (though I think BtS comes very very close) because they do not actually promise that astronomers will recognize your purchase.  Rather, it is a “scam” in the sense that it is very misleading to the public, with people being led to think that it is now an official name that will is “recorded ‘forever’ in existence,” to quote another blogger on WordPress.

The only “official” way these are recognized is within their own company and their own products.  They take your money, enter something in a database, and send you a pretty piece of paper and maybe a booklet and a starchart with “your” star circled.  Please do NOT give them any more money, unless you want to pay for a pretty piece of paper.

But, you don’t need to take my word for it:

2 Comments »

  1. I remember seeing one of these things in a space science museum about 15 years ago when I was in high school. Back then, I thought it was stupid. I knew that there was an official group (the IAU), and that was the only group that could name stars. I knew this company was selling nothing more than a novelty certificate.

    Comment by earthandbeyond — November 22, 2008 @ 8:29 am | Reply

  2. What’s the operator supposed to do? Well having been an operator in just that situation I’ll tell you. Punch in the coordinates and don’t say a word. Half the time the star’s below the horizon, in which case you simply state the facts; you can’t view it right now. The other half, you show them the eyepiece and state that “the” star is in the center of the field. You never know what the real reason for the star’s purchase was, and it’s not a wise idea to burst someone’s bubble in public.

    As a free alternative to star naming, I’d advise people to look at a database of asteroid names for either the surname or given name of the person they were planning to buy a star for. Many times you’ll find the name is already attached to an asteroid. Who cares if it was for an unrelated reason? If you have the means, get a picture of the asteroid and make a certificate proudly displaying the name.

    Alternatively, if you’re really dedicated, you can try to be the first to catch a short-lived speck of comet on the SOHO website and “dedicate” it to your loved one. It’s not official, but you put far more work into it and it’s much more meaningful.

    Comment by Scott — February 9, 2009 @ 11:50 am | Reply


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