Name a star - the history of star naming and star catalogues







About 350 of the brighest stars were given names by ancient civilisations. Many of us have heard of Polaris, Sirius, Vega and Betelgeuse, stars which were named by the Greeks, Arabs and Romans, and these names are still used. In the 1950s the astronomical community adopted a policy of not naming stars, and with good reason, since it would be far too large an undertaking. However, other celestial features, such as asteroids and comets, continue to be named to this day, usually after their discoverers but sometimes as a tribute to a well-known individual.

It’s been more than 23 centuries since the first known star catalogue was compiled by Timocharis of Alexandria, although even more ancient civilisations undoubtedly made observations and recordings too, such as the Babylonians and the Chinese around 3,000 BC. Since 300 BC, over two dozen different star catalogues have been compiled, listing stars according to position and brightness. Timocharis’s catalogue was the basis for Ptolomy’s Almagestus, listing some 1,000 stars.

In 1603 Johannes Bayer introduced a system which classified stars by brightness within each constellation, using the Greek Alphabet. So, for example, the brightest star in Orion would be Alpha Orionis and the 24th brightest would be Omega Orionis. However, this provided for a total of just 2112 stars.

After the invention of the telescope in 1608, celestial observation and notation became increasingly more detailed and sophisticated. The Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, compiled a catalogue in 1712 which listed 3,000 stars by identification number. By the period immediately following the World War I, Henry Draper had published a catalogue of 225,300 stars. Flamsteed gave each of his stars a number based on their celestial longitude, whereas Draper was also able to catalogue by spectral type. Other well-known 20th century catalogues include the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), with 258,900 stars listed.

To date, the most comprehensive catalogue ever compiled is the photometric sky survey produced in 1983 by the Palomar and Schmidt telescopes as a guide for the Hubble Space Telescope. The survey identified some 16 million stars and it is from this, the Hubble Guide Star Catalog (GSC) that ISR selects stars for you to name.