August 17, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Is It OK When Astronomers Sell Stars?

Most people have heard the ads for companies that sell you a certificate for a star they will name after you.  Professional astronomers have usually been quick to discourage people from falling for the schemes that have no professional or international authority for naming stars (for instance, see this article on Wired.com).  But now, according to New Scientist, an international consortium of astronomers with the Kepler Mission will be selling stars to raise money for data analysis from the spacecraft:

“There are plenty of phony name-a-star things on the web, but I think we were the first scientists to use this sort of model for fundraising, and as a public outreach tool,” says project leader Travis Metcalfe of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.  “We’re trying to educate people about what the Kepler mission does, and to get them excited about the quest for other Earths.”

Since Kepler has 100,000 stars in its field of view, they hope to raise a million dollars at $10 a star “to pay scientists’ salaries and bring them together at conferences.”  In return, the donor gets his or her name attached to one of the stars on Google Sky.  The program was named “Pale Blue Dot” after Carl Sagan’s book of that name.

A fly on the wall listened in to the astronomers cooking up this scheme.
“Look, we all know that International Star Registry is bunk, but we need some money.  I was thinking, maybe their strategy could be used to our advantage.  After all, their continued success proves there is still a sucker born every minute.”
“Well, we’d better distinguish what we want to do from what they are doing.  We are ethical scientists, you know.”
“If we as professional scientists assign them a star, isn’t it kind of official?”
“Nah; we’ll never get the International Astronomical Union to agree to it.”
“But we won’t be selling the star, really; we’ll just ask them to adopt one for awhile.”
“Your point is?”
“We could say this is supporting science instead of paying the salaries of slick marketers.”
“You realize, don’t you, that this money is going to pay our salaries….”
“How about emphasizing the educational benefits of our program?”
“Probably not good enough.  The star registry sends its customers victims information about ‘their’ star.”
“But we want to excite people about what we are trying to do.”
“I dunno; my aunt got pretty excited when Uncle Joe bought her a star from one of those phony companies.”
“How about the fact that we will print their star on Google Sky instead of on parchment?”
“Your point is?”
“We could emphasize our price is one fifth their price.”
“Now you’re just quibbling about the price.  It could still make us look just as sleazy as they are – and cheap, too.”
“But isn’t our program for a worthy cause?”
“Some people will complain that science shouldn’t grovel in the dirt to get its work done.”
“Isn’t that what we do already trying to get government funding?”
“I know!  Let’s get Carl Sagan’s name attached to it.  Everybody knows he was a real astronomer.  If they see his picture and slogan, they’ll flock like sheep to the slaughter.  Let’s get some celebs to donate first and pitch it on TV.  Build a slick website with promos, a donor honor roll and T-shirts with Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot logo, and we’ll be rolling in dough in no time!”
“Ethics, schmethics.  It’s a new day for science.  Three cheers!”

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