The star occupying 6th place on Wikipedia's list of nearest stars and brown dwarfs can be called either Lalande 21185, BD+36 2147, Gliese 411 or HD 95735. That seems to me like a fine, quadruple choice of equally bad names.

I mean, I know these come from positions held in various star catalogues and maybe aren't that bad compared to monstrosities like WISE J085510.83−071442.5, but can't we keep those for stars like 50 light yrs away and invent something better for our nearest neighbours?

This year we saw a batch of confirmations for planets orbiting in habitable zones of many of these stars. In not so distant future we may find ourselves discussing possibility of sending probes to some of these systems. Aren't better names long overdue?

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    $\begingroup$ This is unhelpful, but iau.org/public/themes/naming_stars explains IAU's position on naming stars (they initially named 227 stars, and have named more since, but the number is still less than 500). $\endgroup$
    – user21
    Nov 28, 2017 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ You can't forget about CFBDSIR J214947.2-040308.9 $\endgroup$
    – GoingFTL
    Dec 20, 2017 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ As a complement to @JamesK’s excellent answer, I would add that even existing star names are mostly descriptors rather than names, but taken directly in Arabic instead of translated. For example, Deneb, the brightest star of Cygnus, is an Arabic word meaning “tail,” referencing its position in the constellation figure. Same for Betelgeuse, a corruption of the Arabic sentence for “the shoulder of the giant.” $\endgroup$ Jan 6 at 22:19

3 Answers 3


There are a thousand or so stars within 50 light years, most are very dim red dwarfs, and most are unexceptional. If we invent "names" then we would have to learn the names of all the stars.

If we want to name all the stars that can be seen with a telescope, we would have to come up with a billion or so names. The idea of naming stars rapidly becomes impractical - nobody is ever going to learn thousands of names which were chosen on whim.

So what could be a "better name" than just making up a name based on one's heroes, friends, gods, or jokes?

Instead we can make a list of stars, and name them systematically. We could use the part of the sky that the star appears in, and some letter or number. Or we could use the coordinates that the star appears at to label it. Or we could just give each star a number. This way we don't need to invent names, we just use our system. When we do this we get "names" like "omicron ceti" (using the letter "omicron" and the part of the sky "ceti") or "HD 128621" (star number 128621 in the list prepared by Henry Draper). or WISE 0410+1502 (a brown dwarf discovered by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, and located at 04hr10min, 15deg02min in the sky)

Cataloguing is simply a better way of naming stars as there are so many of them.

When a star is exceptional in some way, then there may be a reason to give it a name - Barnards Star (moves very fast), Sirius (very bright). But most stars are unexceptional, and there are so many of them.

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    $\begingroup$ That is precisely my point - those nearest stars are exceptional. If for nothing more - just by the virtue of being our closest neighbours. And as I said - I have nothing against keeping catalogue based names (or other systematic names) for those thousand or so stars within 50 light years. But maybe those listed on the Wikipedia list I linked already merit an unique name more than hundreds of obscure asteroids of the Solar System that have been granted one over the years. And BTW, I don't consider names in the vein of Barnard's Star or Kapteyn's Star to be sufficient either $\endgroup$
    – z33k
    Nov 26, 2017 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ I certainly agree that the random naming of minor asteroids is pointless. $\endgroup$
    – James K
    Nov 26, 2017 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesK: I do however agree with OP in that in a research field a bunch of recurring coded names like HD189733b could be done away with trivial names like in chemistry. $\endgroup$ Nov 28, 2017 at 1:29

Almost without exception, the stars that have proper names are those stars that are visible to the naked eye. The rest require an instrument such as a telescope to be seen.

While a proper name may appeal to people reading about discoveries of things like exoplanets, using a catalogue designation makes it easier for the researchers. Most of the catalogue designations originate in a straightforward process of labelling new discoveries according to some method. For some, WISE J085510.83−071442.5 might be a monstrosity but for the people involved in WISE and subsequent studies it is a clear designation that helps with communication.

It is not really any different than using Sirius or α Canis Majoris. Some people will use α Canis Majoris to try to clearly communicate that they mean the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, and some people hearing that will complain that they don't simply call it Sirius.

  • $\begingroup$ I know professionals don't mind their professional designations. I'm just dumbstruck they seem to don't see any value in granting those lowly peasants who "read about discoveries of things like exoplanets" this little thing that they positively know so appeals to them. $\endgroup$
    – z33k
    Dec 15, 2017 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ After following @barrycarter link I know it's not entirely true. Professionals do seem to see the above mentioned value - hence the NameExoWorlds campaign. It just seems they need a lot of time to come around to actual naming and that we're in dire need of quickly establishing another campaign - maybe this one should be called NameStellarNeighbourhood? $\endgroup$
    – z33k
    Dec 15, 2017 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ This is pedantry, I know, but you said " the brightest star in the constellation Canis Majoris"; this should be " the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major". Canis Majoris is the genitive form of the name, so it means "of Canis Major". $\endgroup$
    – Jim421616
    Dec 19, 2017 at 23:54

Thanks to barrycarter I now know that International Astronomical Union is very much aware of the need for better names:

Alphanumeric designations are useful for astronomers to officially identify the stars they study, but in many instances, for cases of bright stars, and stars of historical, cultural, or astrophysical interest, it can be more convenient to refer to them by a memorable name.

They even organized in 2014 exactly what I thought should be done, just not for the nearest star systems but for 305 well-characterized exoplanets discovered prior to 31 December 2008 and their host stars. The campaign was called NameExoWorlds and produced such splendid results like this, this and this.

It seems we're in neeed for a new campaign - maybe this time called NameStellarNeighbourhood. Especially as we now know that nearly all sun-like stars have planetary systems, so being a close neighbour to the Solar System rather than having a planet strikes me as a much better distinction meriting a proper name.


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