In May 2016, the IAU Executive Committee approved the setting up of a body called the Working Group on Star Names (WSGN), with the group given the job of formalizing the colloquial names of stars that have been in use for centuries. WSGN has since established a collection of standardized IAU star names, with the first catalogue of 227 approved stars having now been published on the IAU site.
Made up of a group of eight international astronomers, the WSGN is an initiative born out of the IAU Division C, which is responsible for matters concerning astronomy education, outreach, history and heritage. Under this division, the WSGN has been tasked with examining global astronomical culture and history in order that it may then approve and catalogue a batch of new standardized star names and spellings.
For years, it has been the practice to assign the stars an alphanumeric denotation, with these designations considered the most practical method as star catalogues will usually contain millions or even billions of objects. This alphanumeric labeling will still continue to be used and not altered by the WSGN, with the task force’s main priority being simply to decide which traditional star names from different cultures should be considered the official names in order to avoid global confusion. Case in point, all 9,096 stars visible to the naked eye have alphanumeric denotations, but only a small percentage have been assigned proper names. Furthermore, up until now many of those prominent stars have had no official spellings for their names, while others have had multiple names, or identical names used by other stars.
In the past, the IAU has approved just 14 star names mostly as a result of its work in naming newly discovered exoplanets, but now the organization wants to let international communities help chose the best stellar names as it seeks to reduce confusion, and ensure that global astronomical heritage is preserved.
The WGSN currently has 227 star names published on the IAU site under its Naming Stars page, many of which have been long-used by stargazers. In fact, the catalogue includes 18 star names that were approved by the ‘IAU Executive Committee Working Group for Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites’ in December 2015, including 5 ancient names and 14 new names voted on by the public, along with 209 recently approved names by the WGSN, with the number expected to grow in the future.
Some of the names that have been approved formally by the WGSN include Proxima Centauri, which is the star nearest to the Sun and the host star of the nearest exoplanet; and Rigil Kentaurus, the old name for Alpha Centauri. Amongst the newly named stars that have been discovered to host exoplanets are Algieba, which was Gamma1 Leonis; Hamal (Alpha Arietis); and Muscida, formerly known as Omicron Ursae Majoris.
Going forward, it is expected that this group will subsequently focus on defining the criteria, rules, and processes with which new names for stars and other stellar objects can be proposed by those involved in the international astronomical community. This includes both the general population and professional astronomers alike. It is through this endeavor that soon the world will know the night sky under streamlined names that are the same globally so that we can all look to the heavens and recognize the same celestial bodies under a single title together.