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New round of star wars

Entrepreneurs battle over celestial naming rights

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff, 5/1/2000

Trillions of miles away in the Cancer constellation, Krystal Fransen's namesake radiates.

The North Reading woman has always been the center of her boyfriend's universe, but he paid the Name a Star company $50 last month to change the name of star number 098139 to ``Krystal,'' guaranteeing her a more public place in perpetuity.

But Fransen's and thousands of others' place in celestial immortality is being threatened by one of the nastiest star wars to hit this corner of the universe in a long time.

The International Astronomical Union says that only its organizationis allowed to name anything in the sky, and that the star-naming business is a scam that real astronomers refuse to recognize. Nonetheless, more and more buy-a-star companies are popping up on the Web, raising suspicions that certain star names are being sold twice. Meanwhile, the star namers have turned on themselves, as the biggest firm sues Name a Star for allegedly stealing their trademarked name to market Milky Way real estate.

``I'd like to be sitting in the courtroom for that case,'' said Dennis di Cicco, associate editor for Sky & Telescope magazine in Cambridge. ``It's sort of amusing because it's a fight over who has the right to dupe the public. There are very few people who stand neutral on this.''

Americans have been naming things after themselves at least since Christopher Columbus visited in 1492, but the battle over star-naming rights is a singularly modern form of colonialism. These days, Americans buy the right to name everything from stadiums to insects in the tropical rainforest, and they can even petition the US government to name any landscape feature - even a mound of earth - in the backyard.

The obsession with naming things began extending heavenward in the late 1970s, as novelty entrepreneurs capitalizing on the `pet rock' craze discovered a seemingly infinite supply of free merchandise in the cosmos. Now, more than 1 million star names have been ``sold'' and the rest are going fast. Hundreds, if not thousands, are being sold every month. But even if sales sped up, there are billions of stars in the universe.

``It's the supreme form of ego,'' said Joe Boskin, professor of social history at Boston University. ``And in America, it's crucial. Immigrants came here and reinvented themselves. Their names conveyed power and identity in a new place. We are a wealthy nation, and in the history of mankind the wealthy people want to leave a legacy. That means their name. Anywhere they can.''

For the average folk, the legacy doesn't have to cost the millions often required to attach a family name to a college dorm or hospital wing. It usually costs around $50 to name a star that is virtually guaranteed to last a good 5 billion years more than its namesake.

All star-naming companies allow customers to choose a star in the constellation of their choice, selecting the often faint pinpricks of light using Hubble telescope technology or astronomical catalogs. The International Star Registry even places star names in a book and locks it in a Swiss bank.

Virtually none of the named stars are visible to the naked eye, but the companies promise that almost all can be seen with binoculars or telescopes. And the purchase comes with a map that identifies the named star's position in the heavens.

As a result of the star-naming boomlet, the once august business of naming celestial bodies after the gods of mythology or giving them precise catalog numbers has been replaced by a new aesthetic:

The Elvis star shines down from the Cepheus constellation and more than 10 Princess Dianas now dot the sky from Orion to Andromeda. Stars named for Billy Ray Cyrus, Dolly Parton, Sammy Davis Jr., members of the Space Shuttle Challenger crew, and the ``Star Trek'' crew twinkle in the night sky. Actor Billy Baldwin even named a star after John F. Kennedy Jr. when he died, according to the International Star Registry.

But members of the International Astronomical Union say no astronomer is going to acknowledge these names when charting or analyzing star light.

The union, made up of professional astronomers around the world, is responsible for naming celestial bodies and the rules are strict: Virtually no stars are given names anymore; there are simply too many. When new stars are discovered, they are given numbers that note only their celestial coordinates.

Features on planets and their moons are named, but often have to follow a theme, according to the astronomical union. The craters of Mercury have to be named for dead artists, painters, musicians, or authors, while only the dead and famous get moon craters named after them. Asteroids can be named after regular folks but there are so many restrictions it rarely happens.

``The problem is that these companies are out there making a profit and people think they are for real. They lead people to think they are actually naming a star,'' said Dan Green, an astronomer with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge. The astronomical union's Web site jokingly urges potential star buyers to visit the real estate they are buying before forking over money.

``A lot of people buy these stars for sentimental reasons for people who are dying or who died. Give the money to the American Cancer Society,'' he said. ``It will be better spent.''

Novelty, not science, is the star-naming companies' defense. They say it is a gag gift that translates only into a certificate, a name in a database, and a huge smile.

``It's a novelty gift and that's all,'' said Cort Vaughan, of Name a Star in Oregon. ``Even though it has no scientific basis, it's something people love. They name them after loved ones, to commemorate someone.''

Fransen's boyfriend, Patrick McCarthy, a student at Suffolk University, agreed. He bought her the present as a one-year anniversary gift. ``I know it's not real, the name isn't etched in stone,'' said McCarthy, also from North Reading. ``It's just a unique gift. She was really surprised.''

Even a gag stab at eternity, however, translates into big money. While Name a Star says it has sold about 10,000 star names since it began, the firm is dwarfed by the International Star Registry, a conglomerate with 15 worldwide offices that says it has named close to a million stars. In 1998 alone, the company sold more than $4 million worth of star names.

International Star Registry filed suit in October in Illinois Federal Court against Name a Star, saying that the company was using its federally registered name to sell star names on its Web site. But International Star Registry uses the phrase `name a star' on its Web site too. Both companies declined to discuss the lawsuit.

If the International Star Registry wins, Name a Star - which has for now removed mention of the registry from its Web site - cannot call itself a star registry. Without that ring of authenticity, sales could suffer.

But, while the two oldest name-a-star firms duke it out in court, new competitors are getting in on the action - with the help of the Web.

A quick browse of the Web turned up a Universal Star Listing, Celestial Registry, and a Ministry of Federal Star Registration, among others. A consumer can even send $50 to a Brookfield, Mass., post office box and Chris Schell, ``astronomer since 1953,'' will pick a star and put it in ``Schell's Astronomical Index.'' He notes on the Web site, ``There is considerable work and experience involved in such an undertaking.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 5/1/2000.
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