How did stars get their names

How did stars get their names

Humans have been mystified by the night sky since the dawn of history. Our ancestors observed the sky and it’s 4000 visible stars,  noticed patterns and noted celestial bodies movements and it is not a surprise that the astronomy, the science of celestial objects, is one of the oldest. Stars, planets, comets and the Moon played a crucial role in developing navigation, farming, calendars and as result human civilisations. Some of the brightest stars have the well-known names, Capella, Rigel and Sirius but how did they get their names?

People saw patterns of the stars in the night sky that resembled people, animals or common objects, they grouped them in constellations that came to represent figures from myth. Traditional constellation names are still well known and used by the International Astronomic Union.

Arabic origins

Many of the prominent and brightest stars in the sky known today have Arabic origin names as they inherited names given to them during the golden age of Islamic astronomy, Greek names are common as well.  The majority of historic stars names are related to their constellation, for example, the star Deneb means “tail” in Arabic and labels that part of Cygnus the Swan, or  Betelgeuse, the bright star in the constellation Orion, began as Yad al-Jauzā’, which translates roughly to “the hand of Orion”. Other names describe the star itself, such as Sirius, which translates literally as “scorching” from Greek,  apt enough for the brightest star in the sky. Quite a lot of bright stars have Arabic “al” which states for the article “the” and often appears in front: Algol, “The Ghoul.”

Most other names of stars got their names from the past Latin or Chinese languages.

Ptolemy, the famous Greek astronomer who lived in Alexandria in Egypt and worked around 100-178 CE, collected ancient descriptions of more than a thousand stars in his book, The Great System of Astronomy, known under Arabic title, the Almagest. Ptolemy’s catalogue of stars arranged them into 48 constellations, with estimates of their brightness, based largely on the observations of the Greek earlier astronomers. Ptolemy’s book was translated into Arabic first and then in Latin later in the 12th century.

When the Arabic tradition of star names was passed down to the Latin world a lot of names were corrupt. Some names slightly changed their meaning or even lost it completely, some names even were mistakenly assigned from one star to another, so that a name might even refer to a different constellation.

The Bayer name system

In 1603, German astronomer Johann Bayer (1572-1625) instituted a system of assigning Greek alphabet letters to stars, which is now known as Bayer designation.  It consists of a lowercase letter from the Greek alphabet followed by the constellation name. The brightest star in a constellation is called “Alpha”, the second brightest is  ” Beta,” and third is “Gamma”. Thus the brightest star in Lyra, Vega, an Arabic proper name, becomes Alpha of Lyra or Alpha Lyrae, Betelgeuse, the bright star in the constellation Orion, is also known as alpha Orionis.

The Flamsteed System

Eventually, there are only 24 Greek letters and it is not enough.  Furthermore, at the dimmest limits of naked-eye visibility, it becomes quite difficult to rank stars by relative brightness.  An astronomer John Flamsteed disagreed with Bayer’s naming scheme and suggested numbering the stars going from west to east rather than in order of brightness since it’s kind of hard to distinguish relative brightness among the dimmer stars.  The westernmost star in Centaurus would be 1 Centauri, the star immediately to the east of that would be 2 Centauri, et cetera.

The astronomical community accepted his new numbering scheme but at the same time retained Bayer’s Greek-letter names for the brighter stars that already had them.

Thus, many stars visible to the naked eye have an Arabic name, a Bayer Greek-letter name, and a Flamsteed numeric name

The era of telescopes

The Flamsteed system worked just fine until astronomers started using telescopes and suddenly, a whole set of new stars showed up that were too dim to be seen with the naked eye. The west-to-east numbering system was simply limiting.  Actually, there was no system which could cope with this uncountable number of new stars.  The stellar astronomical community exploded into a flurry of catalogues where each astronomer listing newly discovered stars by his own numbering system.  Some astronomers catalogued the stars according to what declination (degrees north or south of the celestial equator) they were discovered at so that we get catalogue names such as Bonner Durchmusterung (BD) +5°1668 and Catalogue Astrographigue (AC) -24°2833-183.  But the majority of astronomers just numbered them in the order of their discovery which gave us such creative star names as Henry Draper (HD) 95735.  And most catalogues overlapped each other were confusing. The only way to clear up all the mess was to introduce right-ascension and declination in a given year for the greatest accuracy possible and use that as your reference point when looking into the various catalogues.

There are billions and billions of stars in the universe and the majority of them remain nameless and have only soulless numbers, you have an amazing opportunity to bring them life and to memorise someone you love in the night sky and offer them a beautiful gift with their proper star name.

Choose our name a star gifts

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