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How Stars Get Their Names

A new official registry of star names applies order to the universe.

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This story appears in the August 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

They may sound like characters from the pages of Harry Potter, but Alfirk and Grumium are actually the names of two stars in the universe. Along with 225 other unusual-sounding monikers, they’re part of a new registry of official star names. The list was created by the International Astronomical Union, the group that authorizes the naming of celestial objects.

For millennia humans have relied on the stars to navigate seas and cultivate crops, says astronomer Eric Mamajek. Over time a single star could rack up dozens of names with various spellings and translations, many rooted in ancient Greek and Arabic. Astronomers assign alphanumeric designations to heavenly bodies, says Mamajek, but people like to use names for places: “You don’t refer to your hometown by its zip code.”

Mamajek hopes the new list will provide all stargazers a streamlined lexicon. Meanwhile, he and his team maintain an internal index of every name they find—at last count, about 3,500 for 950 stars.

Identity Crisis

The official name of the orange star at upper left in the image above is now Betelgeuse, a word that’s derived from Arabic. But it’s had many other names—some of which are listed below.

  • Al-mirzam (Arabic)
  • Ardra (Sanskrit)
  • Bed Elgeuze (spelling variation)
  • Betel’gejze (spelling variation)
  • Chak tulix (Mayan)
  • Jed Algeuze (spelling variation)
  • Kauluakoko (Hawaiian)
  • Lak (Tibetan)
  • Menkib al Gjauza (Arabic)
  • Moroitch (Aboriginal Australian)
  • Orionis Humerus Orient (Latin)
  • Putara (Maori)


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