Reality Check: You Can’t Actually Name Stars for David Bowie

We fact-check claims that a constellation shaped like a lightning bolt has been registered in the rocker’s name.

David Bowie is a star in the firmament of musical artists, but is he now to become a literal field of stars? It seems that some enterprising fans are claiming to have named a constellation for the late British musician as a tribute in the heavens.

The Belgium-based MIRA Public Observatory and a local radio station announced online Wednesday that they have teamed up to register a constellation in the shape of a lightning bolt, as seen in Bowie’s makeup on the 1973 Aladdin Sane album cover.

Amid an outpouring of affection and grief for this globally beloved artist, many online international outlets have since picked up the story. Unfortunately, many lack the astronomical details and are unclear on how a new constellation is created. 

Worse, stories are using a confusing mix of terminology that is likely to give the wrong impression to the general public, who may not be familiar with astronomical jargon.

More refreshing are the comments from readers of news stories who have caught errors in descriptions of the process of officially creating a constellation.

Here is where the science falls apart:

1. There is simply no mechanism to replace or name new constellations. The entire sky has already been divided into 88 constellations with well-defined celestial borders than span the entire celestial sphere. This set of constellations is recognized by the International Astronomical Union, the official naming body of scientists.

2. The seven stars that form the lightning pattern from Bowie’s album is in fact called an asterism. An asterism is simply a set of stars that form a pattern familiar to the human eye as part of a larger group of stars. This can represent a chunk of a single constellation, or multiple constellations.

In this case the asterism is made up of stars from the constellations Libra, Virgo, Centaurus, and Triangulum Australe.

Famous examples of asterisms include the Big Dipper within the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, and the Summer Triangle, which is composed of the lead stars of three constellations: Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila.

There are many other connect-the-dots asterisms scattered across the night sky that skywatchers have traced out as easy-to-find imagery. There are all kinds of patterns up there if you start looking: a giant sickle, a teapot, a fish hook and even a coat hanger, just to name a few. You and I can make up our own, too, but it doesn’t mean they will ever be recognized outside of your circle of skywatching friends.

3. It’s misleading to say the lightning bolt shape is “in the vicinity of Mars,” as stated in the online announcement. The red planet actually is in constant motion in our skies, with movement visible in just a matter of days. While stars are so far away that they appear not to move for many millennia to the naked eye, planets orbiting the sun do visibly glide across our night sky.

However, there is one lasting astronomical tribute to Bowie that may stand the test of time.

A mile-wide asteroid between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter now officially bears the name of 342843 DavidBowie. The asteroid was first discovered back in 2008 and was given its new name, coincidentally just over a year ago on January 5, 2015, just days before Bowie’s 68th birthday.

The Bowie asteroid is too faint to be seen even by backyard telescopes, but it’s still nice to know that not only will his music live on here on Earth, but also that the talent that created the extra-terrestrial persona Ziggy Stardust and the songs Starman and Space Oddity has now made its mark in the celestial heavens.

Clear skies!

By Andrew Fazekas

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