Proper names (astronomy)

Some astronomical objects have proper names (common names, popular names, traditional names), often in addition to catalogue numbers or other systematic designations.[1][2][clarification needed] This trivially includes the naked-eye planets as well as the Sun and Moon. A small number of stars have proper names in pre-modern astronomical tradition, but most naked-eye stars are identified by their Bayer or Flamsteed designations.

In modern astronomy, there has been a tradition of giving proper names to newly discovered heavenly bodies, initiated with the discovery of the planets beyond Saturn, and later extended to minor planets and moons.


The naming of astronomical objects and surface features in those objects is handled by two bodies of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The names of major planets, satellites, and surface features in those bodies, are assigned by the Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature. Names of comets and minor planets are handled by the Committee on Small Body Nomenclature. These bodies are also responsible for the dissemination of the names. The IAU's website has lists of all these names.[1]

Proper names of fixed starsEdit

In modern astronomy, the designation of stars is done by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). For the brightest stars, nomenclature is based on the Bayer designation, first published for a total of 1,564 naked-eye stars in 1603. Only a minority of these have proper names.[3] Many of the proper names that remain in use in modern astronomy are based on Arabic star names from medieval Islamic astronomy, which in turn was substantially based on Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest, which contained the original Greek and Latin names for stars.

For example, the Arabs translated Opisthen (Οπισθεν "after" or "following") or Opiso (Οπισω "to follow after"), one of the original Greek names for the brightest star in Taurus, as Aldebaran (الدبران), which means "the Follower" in Arabic, because the star always follows behind the Pleiades as both move across the sky.

Most proper names for stars, especially the Arabic names, are descriptive of the locations of the stars within their parent constellations. For example, the star named Rigel (Arabic for "foot") marks the left foot of Orion the Hunter. Deneb (Arabic for "tail") marks the tail of Cygnus the Swan.

While most Arabic star names are translations from Ptolemy's Almagest, a small number of stars have retained names from native Arabian tradition; for example, there is a star in Lepus the Hare named Nihal, meaning "The Camels Quenching Their Thirst" in Arabic, because Lepus ("the hare") was seen as a caravan of camels in ancient Arabia.

A small number of Greek and Latin names have been preserved from antiquity, and have not been replaced by names derived from their Arabic equivalents. Examples include Sirius (Greek for "searing" or "scorching"), Arcturus (Greek for "Guardian of the Bear"), Capella (Latin for "Little She-goat"), and Spica (Latin for "Ear of Grain").

A small number of star names are also found in Chinese and Indian traditional astronomy, but as in Ptolemaic tradition, these traditions focussed on asterisms or groups of stars, and only a handful of stars were given individual names. Examples include Chinese Koo She ("bow and arrow") and Sanskrit Chitra "the bright one".

There are also contemporary proper names given to some stars, many of which refer to accomplished astronomers, deceased astronauts and English titles. For example, Gamma Velorum is named Regor, which is "Roger" spelled backwards; the name honors Astronaut Roger B. Chaffee, who died in the Apollo I tragedy. Other contemporary names include The Persian (Alpha Indi) and The Head of Hydrus (Alpha Hydri), Herschel's Garnet Star (Mu Cephei), Barnard's Star, etc.

Some independent astronomical and astrological businesses or organizations claim to sell the opportunity to "name a star". These names are not recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU is the most influential organization that names stars and other celestial objects; it is the only one recognized by mainstream astronomers, on star maps, and in science textbooks.

Proper names of major planetsEdit

Proper names of minor planetsEdit

Proper names of satellitesEdit

Proper names of cometsEdit

Proper names of craters and other geographical featuresEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b J Andersen (2000), "Information in astronomy: The role of the IAU", Information Handling in Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Science Library, vol. 250, Springer, p. 9, doi:10.1007/978-94-011-4345-5_1, ISBN 978-94-010-5871-1 p. 9 in google books
  2. ^ Some examples:
    • Allen, R. H., (1899): Star-names and their Meanings, New York, G. E. Stechert.
    • Lampkin, R. H., (1962): Naked Eye Stars: Catalogued by Constellation and in Three Groups by Brightness, Buffalo, New York: Edinburgh, Gall & Inglis Ltd.
    • Kaler, J. B. "Jim", "Star Names – Proper Names" Archived 2004-04-01 at the Wayback Machine @University of Illinois.
  3. ^ The NASA in 1971 compiled a "technical memorandum" collecting a total of 537 named stars. Technical Memorandum 33-507 – A Reduced Star Catalog Containing 537 Named Stars, NASA-CR-124573 (1971).

External linksEdit