Thursday, November 29, 2007

Adopting a Star

Whenever the holiday shopping season rolls around, I consider the idea of setting up an "Adopt a Star" website to help fund scientific research. A quick Google search persuades me to abandon the idea -- the Internet is already full of such sites, and most of them are far more sophisticated than anything I would have time to create. Anyone who cares to fork out $19.95 can name a star "Lula", after their cute Bichon Frise puppy -- they even get a certificate with a star map and the vital statistics of their stellar namesake. But what are they really buying?

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is the only "internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies... and names are not sold". In fact, with the exception of a few bright stars that have ancient traditional names, most of the stars in the sky only have boring old catalog numbers. The IAU does name comets after the discoverers, and astronomers who find new planets or asteroids in our solar system are allowed to suggest names for them (though they can only be named after people who have been dead for more than 100 years, which obviously limits the commercial possibilities). None of the websites that allow you to "buy" or "adopt" a star are affiliated with, or endorsed by, the IAU. So what are these businesses selling?

It's important to distinguish between companies that allow you to "adopt a star" and those that say you can "buy a star name". Although both are engaged in essentially the same business, the representation of the transaction as an "adoption" is more intellectually honest. When you "adopt a highway" it's understood that you do not thereby own a section of a public road. Instead, you agree to keep the adopted stretch free from garbage in exchange for a blue sign on the roadside acknowledging your effort (and possibly persuading drivers to stop at your coffee shop). In the case of stars, your only responsibility is to pay the $19.95 -- the company then lists your name beside the chosen star on their website, and maybe sends you a glossy certificate. One of the best operations I discovered recently is actually run by scientists to support their research. The website resembles the vision I had for "Google Sky", which I wrote about last December, and cleanly separates the commercial portion of the site from the main section that is meant to be a tool for astronomers and the general public.

Allowing anyone to adopt a star is fairly harmless, and most people probably realize that astronomers around the world do not subsequently publish scholarly articles detailing their in-depth decades-long study of "Lula" the puppy star. For those who don't realize that it's just a novelty gift, I have some very nice real estate on the Moon that promises to be really hot property in a few years...