When it comes to companies trying to sell me stuff, I consider myself to be a fairly suspicious — even cynical — person. I’ve looked into everything from 23andMe to the Domino’s Pizza Tracker and found my skepticism justified, but I have to admit that I have a particular, uncharacteristic affection for star-registry companies. You know, those websites that, for a nominal fee, allow you to name a star after whoever or whatever you want? Undoubtedly, the reason for this fondness is that when I got married 10 years ago, my wife presented me with a certificate for a star near Orion’s belt that she’d named for us. Since then, on occasion, I’ve looked up at the dozens of little lights near Orion’s belt and thought about that gift — as well as that talking pug in Men in Black — and wondered which of those stars was ours.
It had been a couple of years since I last thought of our star, but it popped into my head recently when my wife and I were sorting through some boxes in our basement. We stumbled upon some wedding momentos and began reminiscing, but when the conversation turned to the star, we failed to locate the official certificate telling us its precise coordinates. From there, I went on an online hunt trying to find out more about our little orb, and in time, I figured out that I should have been far more skeptical of star registries in the first place.
Just trying to figure out which star-registry company my wife used proved to be a challenge. While I hadn’t realized it previously, there are a bunch of these businesses — the original, official-sounding International Star Registry is one; the much-less-official sounding “Buy a Star” is another. This made me wonder how so many companies had star-naming authority, and I soon found out what should have been obvious all along — none of them do.
In addition to more than a dozen star-naming companies, I found articles going back decades that refuted these organizations, explaining that all you’re really getting from them is a certificate saying you have a star — that’s it. There is nothing official about any of them, and actual star naming is only authorized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
Wanting to know more, I contacted astronomer Lars Lindberg Christensen, who handles communications for the Paris-based IAU, and he bluntly told me that star-naming companies are “basically a scam.” He also explained that the reason why the IAU gets to name stars is because the organization — which was founded in 1919 — was granted this authority by the United Nations, which, you know, is pretty official.
But if star registries are an open scam, how do they get away with it?
Well, they haven’t always. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Consumer Affairs issued a violation to the International Star Registry claiming deceptive advertising. That didn’t really change their business though, as they just added some fine print explaining that these names aren’t official. If you visit their FAQ now, you’ll see that it says, “NASA will not be using this new name,” and that their catalog of stars is “not recognized by astronomers.” So really, you’re only buying a certificate, and space in their Excel spreadsheet of stars and names. And since they aren’t really selling anything, other companies can do the same thing, or even sell you the same exact star another company is selling.
The danger of a double-sold star isn’t really that great, though. As Lindberg Christensen tells me, “There are a lot of stars, so chances are they may not overlap.” Looking it up later, I found that there are just 9,096 visible stars in Earth’s sky, but over 200 billion trillion stars total. Having been around since 1979, the International Star Registry claims to have named over three million of these since its inception, but only in their FAQ do they explain that your star won’t be visible with the naked eye and it only might be visible with a telescope or “good binoculars.”
Lindberg Christensen also sent me information on how stars are actually named and, unsurprisingly, they aren’t named for people’s dead cats. “Some bright stars have proper names, with mostly Arabic, Greek or Latin etymologies, but otherwise, the vast majority of stars have alphanumeric designations consisting of an acronym plus an index number or celestial position (e.g., HR 7001, 2MASS J18365633+3847012),” explains the IAU’s page on star registries. Although names like that are hardly exciting, the IAU explains that they provide a scientific designation of where a star is located and that — with so many stars out there — actually naming them all would be entirely impractical.
While I was digging into this star mystery, my wife was digging through several old email accounts for the all-too-common word “star.” Eventually, she located the receipt from 2011 for the “Star Foundation,” which promised to name a star for us and give part of the proceeds to charity. Unfortunately, my disappointment in star-naming companies only compounded from there.
A quick search for The Star Foundation turned up nothing, and the website, starfoundation.net, only has an error message. A little more digging uncovered that the parent company, The Star Foundation Network, operated at least two other star-naming services including the completely blank buyastar.net and The Star Network, which still has a homepage, but most of the links are broken. By using the Wayback Machine, I was able to figure out that The Star Foundation last had a working website around 2014. The phone number was disconnected, too, and I couldn’t find a single person online — particularly via Facebook or LinkedIn — who claimed to have worked for them.
So, not only are star-registration companies shady and unofficial, but my star-registry company no longer exists. I was, however, able to determine that The Star Foundation Network did actually make donations to charity, which means some of my wife’s money went to good use. I also managed to find our star in their archives via the Wayback Machine. Though any means of locating our star — which, of course, was never ours to begin with — seemed to be impossible, as the registration number listed offers no way to find our celestial body.
After digging into this, I felt like I’d opened a can of worms I never should have. I’d originally had naive affection for this kind of gift, but I felt like my investigation had cheapened the whole thing.
I guess the way to make sense of this is pretty obvious, even if it’s cliché: My wife and I never needed a star to commemorate our love in the first place. We’ve been married 10 years and have a beautiful daughter, so it’s not like some fly-by-night star-naming company could cheapen anything, anyway. In this situation — perhaps more than most — it truly is the thought that counts, and that’s what I’ll be thinking about next time I gaze up at Orion’s belt.
And, of course, the talking pug in Men in Black.