Get out your credit card and start snapping up property throughout the cosmos: The Internet is stuffed with companies claiming the right to sell you a piece of extraterrestrial real estate or to name some celestial body. Own an acre on the Moon, found your own ski resort on the slopes of Olympus Mons, name a star for your sweetheart. It's all out there, waiting for the next sucker to lighten his wallet.
The International Star Registry was the first of these companies, so far as I've been able to find. It began in 1979 with ads in the backs of magazines, and would mail you a certificate describing the location of your star and giving every indication that that star was now officially named after you or whoever you paid for it to be named after. With its official sounding name, the International Star Registry's official status was rarely questioned. In the ensuing three decades, copycats have sprung up everywhere. LunarEmbassy.com sells not only property on the moon, but also "lunar corporations" for only $379, and boasts an impressive celebrity customer list. MarsShop.com does the same thing for Martian real estate. AsteroidDatabase.com lets you give any asteroid the name of your choice. And a whole ridiculous host of knockoffs have appeared for naming stars: BuyTheStars.com, UniversalStarCouncil.com, NameAStarLive.com, and countless others. They offer different packages. They promise to donate to charity. They speak impressively of their plans to develop said properties. They promise to publish your ownership in a book, or to place their copyrighted list into the Library of Congress.
None of them ever seem to get around to mentioning how they managed to acquire the right to sell these properties.
That's because none of them have any such rights. They can't sell you property on the Moon because they don't own it. And neither the International Star Registry nor any of its imitators have any more right to name stars than your cat does. What they can do, and what some of them even honestly admit if you can find it buried on their disclaimer page, is that they're merely selling you a slot in some unofficial, unrecognized list of their own, which is perfectly legal; often calling it a "novelty gift". Sometimes these companies use deceptive or vague language hoping you will infer that the named or purchased property is legitimately recognized. For example, the International Star Registry used to say on its web site:
Because these star names are copyrighted with their telescopic coordinates in the book, Your Place in the Cosmos, future generations may identify the star name in the registry.
Hey, it's copyrighted, sounds legitimate. But in 2006, perhaps due to pressure from consumer groups and the astronomical community, they removed that statement and posted a new FAQ page that gave a much more honest and straightforward answer:
Q: Will the scientific community recognize my star name?
A: No. We are a private company that provides Gift Packages. Astronomers will not recognize your name because your name is published only in our Star catalog.
Dennis Hope, the founder of LunarEmbassy.com, breaks with form and asserts legal ownership of the Moon and most of the other planets and moons in the solar system. He states that he simply "claimed" ownership and that such a claim is valid. The legal foundation comes from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which all spacefaring and most other nations are signatory. It states in part that no nation can own any part of the Moon or other planets and moons. Dennis Hope states that it says nothing about individuals and corporations owning them, so he feels this loophole allows his claim to thus grant him full ownership of the real estate in the solar system. But experts on space law don't give Hope's thoughts on the matter too much credence. Ram Jakhu, law professor at the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal, points out that "Individuals' rights cannot prevail over the rights and obligations of a state." Hope's "loophole" is already throroughly closed by other statutes well precedented. Thus, Hope's claim is a little bit like saying it's OK to park your car illegally because the speeding laws say nothing about illegal parking.
There is actually one, and only one, governing body with the authority to manage the official names of celestial bodies, the International Astronomical Union. In response to all the numerous requests they've received over the years to name stars or asteroids or to inquire about the validity of companies offering space properties for sale, the IAU published a statement. It says in part:
Some commercial enterprises purport to offer such services for a fee. However, such "names" have no formal or official validity whatever... Similar rules on "buying" names apply to star clusters and galaxies as well. For bodies in the Solar System, special procedures for assigning official names apply, but in no case are commercial transactions involved.
All known stars are already named, according to various conventions, usually with an alphanumeric designation. Various methods of cataloging stars are used, such that most stars are listed redundantly in multiple catalogs. Designations will often incorporate the star's position in the sky either by its constellation or by the angle of its position; they may incorporate its brightness, its type, or a serial number. Most well known stars also have common names, like Deneb, Regulus, Vega, or Sirius. Beyond these established conventions, any name that anyone might make up and sell for a star has no astronomical legitimacy or permanence outside the records of the company who sold it.
Asteroids, or "minor planets", are different from stars in that they can be named. But not just anyone can name them. First of all, you have to be the discoverer. You have to submit your discovery to the Minor Planet Center, which, if your discovery is confirmed, will assign a designation based on the year of discovery, two letters encoding the date of discovery, and a serial number. This designation only becomes permanent if the orbit of the minor planet can be accurately enough described that its future position can be predicted. If this happens, the Minor Planet Center invites the discoverer to submit a name for the object, which must conform to a lengthy set of specific rules. A 15-person committee at the Minor Planet Center then confirms or denies the submitted name. If the discoverer does not submit a suitable name before the ten years expire, the right to name it falls to the Minor Planet Center. At no time is it possible for any commercial transaction to transfer the right to name a minor planet.
The IAU also gives a tidbit of advice for anyone contemplating a purchase of real estate from LunarEmbassy.com or any other extraterrestrial real estate seller:
Chances are that [your lawyers] will either laugh their heads off or politely suggest that you could invest their fees more productively. At a minimum, we suggest that you defer payment until you can take possession of your property.
It seems incredible that it has to be repeated, but the fact is that just because someone is selling something on the Internet doesn't make it worthwhile, or mean that it even exists at all. The right to legitimately name or own space properties does not exist outside of the novelty gift industry, and is not worthy of your checkbook's attention. Don't be fooled; be skeptical.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Space Properties for Sale." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
2 Dec 2008. Web.
14 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4130>
References & Further Reading
Andersen, Johannes. "Buying Stars and Star Names." International Astronomical Union. International Astronomical Union, 1 Jan. 1999. Web. 3 Jan. 2010. <http://www.iau.org/public_press/themes/buying_star_names/>
Berman, Bob. Strange Universe, the weird and wild science of everyday life--on Earth and beyond. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003. 158-161.
Britt, Robert Roy. "Name a Star? The Truth about Buying Your Place in Heaven." Nightsky. Space.com, 15 Sep. 2003. Web. 3 Jan. 2010. <http://www.space.com/spacewatch/mystery_monday_030915.html>
Kidger, Mark. Astronomical Enigmas, Life on Mars, the star of Bethlehem & other milky way mysteries. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 46-47.
Plait, Philip. Bad Astronomy, Misconceptions and misuses revealed, from astrology to the moon landing 'hoax'. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. 236-244.
Wuorio, Jeff. How to buy & sell just about everything, more than 550 step-by-step instructions for everything from buying life insurance to selling your screenplay to choosing a thoroughbred racehorse. New York: The Free Press, 2003. 95-96.