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The Question

(Submitted April 06, 1998)

I have recently been doing a project about Space in one of my classes. One of the questions we are to answer is 'how did the stars get their names?' Can you help?

The Answer

The stars have a variety of names. There are the common names - Rigel, Sirius, Betelgeuse, Vega, etc - and there are the "scientific" names - Beta Orionis, Alpha Canis Majoris, Alpha Orionis, Alpha Lyrae. The stars may also have names given to them by different catalogues, ex HD 34085, HD 48915, HD 39801, HD 172167.

The common names generally originate from ancient times. Most of the names we use for the stars are Arabic, Egyptian or Greek in origin. These names are often tied to mythology. A good source for the origins of the names of the stars is the book, "Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning" by Richard H. Allen (Dover Publications, 1963). On the web, you might try http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/ (although I don't think it gives detailed information).

The scheme of designating stars with Greek letters and the name of the constellation was first used by J. Bayer in 1603.

Jim Lochner
for Ask an Astrophysicist

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