Friday, December 14, 2007

Stars don't make good Christmas presents

"While astronomy is a relatively safe hobby, keep in mind that stars are hot and will burn for millions of years if left unattended." --- The Onion

As the holiday shopping season reaches its peak in the next few weeks, you may be wondering what to buy that space fanatic for Christmas. One item that is available from some retailers and that seems to remain fairly popular is the "buy a star" or "name a star" gift. Typically, these services, in exchange for a moderate sum of money, give you the "rights" to name a star and provide you with a few goodies, such as a nice certificate, a booklet with information on stars, a sky map with your star indicated, and/or a few other personalized items.

What these companies don't go out of their way to tell you is that the name you give a star is not official. These names are not recognized by any organization of professional astronomers, nor will they ever be used by any astronomer or star catalog (except, perhaps, a catalog produced by the retailer that no astronomer will ever look at). And you get no legal rights to that star or any money that may come from that star (say someone wins a government grant or Nobel prize for studying "your" star -- don't expect to see a red cent).

In fact, I once had a relative buy me a star to name. I appreciated the gesture, I named the star after myself, and I got the little gift packet in the mail. What annoyed me was that the packet was full of a lot of false information (probably not intentionally so, but still quite wrong). I was given my star's coordinates, but there is no star there. The star that came indicated on a star chart was nearly one degree away on the sky! I also received a booklet on the "science" of stars that was full of wildly inaccurate "facts" on stars and their lives.

I would have no problem with companies that want to "sell" stars, if they would clearly state up front that the gift is not official in any manner, and if they would not provide false scientific "facts" about the stars. Neither of these things is difficult, and given the price these retailers charge; it should be insulting to the consumer that these retailers do not take any apparent effort to provide a product worth even a fraction of the cost. And these products do the science of astronomy a disservice by giving people materials that are anti-educational.

If you have already purchased or named a star through such a company, though, don't feel ashamed -- one thing these retailers do accomplish is good advertising for their product. It's just a shame that the product is a sham.

But there are similar products you can buy for that space fanatic. Why not try a framed picture from the Hubble Telescope? Several companies offer them, or you can download high-resolution pictures from Hubblesite and have the picture printed at a photo shop. And, in case your developer is worried, this is legal -- NASA pictures are in the public domain (You may want to print out this letter to give to your developer in case they are worried). Hubblesite even provides a nice step-by-step guide to this -- and there are hundreds more Hubble images than the few dozen the step-by-step guide offers; just download the highest-quality images from the gallery. Put the print in a nice frame, and you have a museum-quality Hubble picture for a gift!

Of course, there are other options for space gifts -- I just wanted to point out one that can be inexpensive and yet result in a high-quality gift, without having to shell out over $50 for bogus naming rights.

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