A Star by Any Other Name

Posted by Kelly on June 30th, 2012

Starry Sky

Star Trails over Mauna Kea by Gemini Observatory/AURA

One of my favorite things about astronomy is the wonderful names given to stars hundreds of years ago. Some of the stars have beautiful or bizarre names, some of the names have entertaining meanings, and some are informative.

My daughter’s middle name is Bellatrix, which is a shoulder star in Orion and means “female warrior”. I had the name picked before I read the Harry Potter book in which Bellatrix is introduced as an evil witch. We also use the original astronomical pronunciation of the name, buh-LAY-trix; although since the Harry Potter novels, everyone, readers and astronomers alike, have begun calling it BELL-a-trix. This is similar to when the movie Beetlejuice came out and made everyone pronounce the star name Betelgeuse incorrectly. The astronomical pronunciation is BET-el-jews (short e in BET).

Two stars in the constellation Libra the Scales with both bizarre and enchanting names are Zubenelgenubi (the southern claw) and Zubeneschamali (the northern claw). You wouldn’t think that two stars in a constellation named after scales would be named for claws, and that’s because these stars were originally part of the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion.

Another tale of two stars involves the variables Algol and Mira. Algol in Perseus is also known as the Demon Star and its name means “the ghoul”. Algol’s bad reputation was widespread: In China, the name for Algol translates to “piled up corpses”. On the other hand, the variable star Mira in Cetus has a name that means “wonderful” or “astonishing”.

Most of the names associated with stars were handed down from folklore or descriptive of the constellation they were in. But one enterprising Italian astronomer who lived from 1770 to 1841 found a way to name a star for himself. His name was Niccolo Cacciatore and he worked at Palermo Astronomical Observatory. He did much of the work in compiling the Palermo Star Catalog. In this catalog, two stars in Delphinus the Dolphin were labeled as Sualocin and Rotanev. Read backward, these stars are Nicolaus Venator, which is the Latinized form of his own name.

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