"Name a star" businesses are approaching their peak with the holidays. But since giving stars personal names is unofficial anyway, you might as well do it for free.
Every once in a while, someone with a star-naming certificate shows up for one of the guided tours I give at the Sternwarte observatory in Stuttgart, Germany. They want to see "their" star. I know what they mean: they’ve usually paid a fee to some company to “name” a star — a name that’s unfortunately never recognized anywhere in any formal or official sense. I usually play along, especially if the star was named for a kid: we take out a big sky atlas and look the star up by its coordinates. It's even a little educational, and they’re happy to have seen their star.
By charging money to “name” stars, these companies are basically cheating their customers out of their money. (Though the International Astronomical Union recently standardized 212 star names, they have issued a warning against buying star names.) Yet there’s nothing inherently bad about naming stars. When a colleague asked me a few years ago where he could name a star for his nephew, I realized that people want that personal connection to the sky — even when they know that it’s not going to be officially recognized anywhere.
That was when the idea for a free star-naming website was born. I started playing around with Google Sky to see how well it can visualize star catalogues. It turns out: quite well! After half a year of experimenting and programming in my spare time, the site Staracle.com went live in the spring of 2011.
The site’s database contains almost the full UCAC3 catalog — that's some 100 million stars to choose from! Every star has a profile page, and when it is named, it can also be given a dedication. The star-naming certificate can be customized in many ways, and it can be downloaded directly from the star's profile page.
Over the years, many new features have found their way onto Staracle, such as a personal star blog and the ability to name multiple stars under one account, which makes it more convenient for all of the teachers who have named stars for their students, or for the grandparents who have named stars for their grandchildren.
Staracle isn’t the only website that takes free star naming seriously. The German website sterntaufe.astronomie.at fulfills the same purpose — you'll even get to download a photo of your star.
Unofficially naming a star creates a connection to the sky, and it’s only a shame that companies would take advantage of customers by charging a fee for something that never becomes official. I believe that this free star-naming service makes many people happy. And even if a name isn’t formally recognized, it still makes for a unique and personal gift.