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Episode 27: Stellar Scams

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Recap: Teachers tell students to "reach for the stars," but some companies out there offer to sell them and land on other planets to you. I give a recap of some of the legal issues involved and what's really going on.

Puzzler -> Fact or Fake?: This week, I'm introducing a new, alternative segment to the puzzler. My tentative name for it is "Fact or Fake." This totally original idea that is not ripped off from any other popular skeptical podcasts is where I will present you with two to four items, based loosely around the topic in the main segment, and you need to figure out which is or are fact, and which is or are fake. The reason for this segment shift is that the puzzlers are sometimes really really hard to come up with, hence why I've been soliciting ideas for the past few episodes. This doesn't mean that the Puzzler is retired -- if I can come up with a puzzler that's good for the topic of the episode, then I'll use it. If I can't, then I'll do this new segment. That said, the NEXT episode is going to be an overview of the asteroid belt, and whether it was ever a planet. If you can think of a good puzzler for that, please send it in.

This week, there are three items:

Item 1: From a dark sky site, there are around 10,000 stars visible to the unaided eye.

Item 2: There is documentation as far back as the 1800s with people claiming ownership rights to the moon, though not necessarily to try to sell it to other people for profit.

Item 3: After Galileo discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter, he gave all the rights to their surface to his local funding source, the Medici family.

This is my first attempt at this thing, so let me know what you think.

Solution to Episode 25's Puzzler: This puzzler was a basic trigonometry problem. The answer is that the distance from the back wall of the roof needs to be 4 + (3 / tan(90°-[your latitude]).

Q&A: This week's question comes from Dave R who asks: "I've been hearing lately about the idea that Earth once had two moons, the smaller one eventually hitting our current one at slow speed and accounting for some of its' features. This reminded me of the 1969 movie "Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun" and made me wonder if it is indeed possible for a solar system to exist with two planets in the same orbit on opposite sides of their sun. My first thought is that this would be unstable as even the slightest difference in orbit, even on the scale of millimeters per millennium would result in a collision between the two. Is this the case?"

The answer is that this is an unstable point, and you're right, the slightest difference in orbit would cause either Earth or the other planet to move.

The point in question is called L3, or, the third Lagrangian point. People familiar with Stargate Atlantis will know about Lagrangian points, or those familiar with where many satellites are today.

The L3 point was quite popular in movies that featured this kind of "Counter-Earth" - including one I think that was lambasted on the cult MST3K show. The L3 point is, as I said, unstable, and the slightest perturbation which WOULD happen soon from any other planet orbiting would start it or Earth moving away from that point.

We also know that theory is correct - there is no Counter-Earth there because we've imaged that region of space.

New News Related to This Episode, from Episode 71:

  • Can One Buy the Right to Name a Planet?
  • There's a New News item this week, sent in by a few different people, relating to Episode 27. The International Astronomical Union this past weekend had a press release reiterating its stance that all the companies out there that offer naming of planets, stars, etc. are scams in its view. In other words, they have no bearing on the official naming process.
  • It was not explicitly stated in the IAU press release, but it was figured out by most news sources that reported it, that this was likely aimed at the project Uwingu, which started up last year. Uwingu, at least in my reading of their materials, is somewhat different from the other places. In the case of Uwingu, as with most others, they do state that these names are not recognized by NASA nor other agencies. But, the board of Uwingu is made of actual astronomers, and the hope of Uwingu is that these names eventually WILL be used by professional astronomers simply because there are so many objects out there. Uwingu also states that the money raised goes to grants for astronomy research, that they've already donated to Astronomers Without Borders and the Allen Telescope Array for SETI. I haven't seen any other of these companies do anything like that.

Additional Materials:

Try out CosmoQuest's Moon Mappers!

Transcript

Introduction: I graduated from high school in May 2001. After my first year of college, I went back to visit some of my science and math teachers to say "hi" and catch up. As I entered the school, to my right was a display case. Prominently shown were three folios with large, full-color, and nicely done certificates. They proudly had across the top an elegant logo of the International Star Registry, and the certificates stated, one on each, that a star in the sky had been officially named after a student. A description in the case stated that these students had done well in some national academic competition. That was fine, but it didn't make up for the fact that my public high school had just been scammed out of $150 of taxpayer money.

Disclaimer: Now, I need to state up-front that I am not a lawyer and I am not using the legal definition of the word "scam," nor am I stating as a finding of fact that any of the companies or products that I'm discussing in this episode do not have disclaimers of their own that they are not in any way official - more on that later. Anyway, the views expressed in this episode are my own or those of people whom I quote, and I encourage you to do your own fact-finding ... as with all topics I discuss on this show.

That said, in the practical sense of the word "scam," being where something is presented with big pretty fonts as one thing and their 3-point font disclaimer at the bottom that you never read says the opposite, what I'm discussing today most people would likely consider to be scams.

Naming Stars

Perhaps the best-known star-naming company out there is the "International Star Registry," a company in Illinois that's been on the web since 1999 but has been in existence since 1979. They're accredited with the Better Business Bureau and their website is full of customer testimonials.

You can purchase a name for a star through their website, and you can request the constellation it's in or to be near a specific location in the sky if you contact their customer service.

If you buy a star, it will be recorded with the company and they publish it in an astronomical compendium, "Your Place in the Cosmos," which is registered in the U.S. Copyright Office.

Their pricing as of March 2012 starts at $54 (plus shipping and handling) and goes up to $489, which will get you the Heirloom Ultimate Star Kit that includes a personalized star chart in an heirloom frame, a complimentary personalized wallet card with the star name and coordinates, and of course your certificate that's matted and framed along with an informative booklet on astronomy.

If all that sounds impressive, that's why marketing is a big business.

The small print on their website states, "International Star Registry star naming is not recognized by the scientific community. Your star name is reserved in International Star Registry records only." And then if you search around in their FAQ, they do state clearly, "We do not own the star, so we cannot sell it to you. This is like adopting the star. Astronomers will not recognize your name because your name is published only in our Star Catalog."

In skepticism, we often are asked the question, "What's the harm?" It's fairly obvious in things like medicine -- the harm is that people die. In astronomy, that's much more rare, and it's really unlikely to cost you anything if you believe Richard Hoagland and his magical 19.5°, or Velikovsky's ideas about an ancient catastrophe. Yes, the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide because they thought a spaceship was behind comet Hale-Bopp in the 1990s, but 39 people committing suicide doesn't come near to equating to, for example, Jenny McCarthy's anti-vaccination crusade and resultant body count.

I'm not trying to minimize other subjects nor other topics on this show, but I'm slightly excited because this is a real case where I finally get to add to the "What's the Harm?" question in a topic related to astronomy. In the case of naming stars through companies such as the International Star Registry, the harm is money and emotional investment. For a pretty certificate for $54 plus shipping and handling, that's all you get, a pretty certificate.

Yes, they publish your name in a book that they "periodically print." But let's be practical here. No one but you is going to know about this, practically speaking. And most people think that their star is actually visible. What they don't realize is that these companies pick stars that usually can only be seen with a large telescope, and then it's another practical issue of when you look through the eyepiece, you're looking at "your" star somewhere -- it's one of those in the broad field of view but you really don't know which one.

And this gets to the emotional side - the investment and the hurt. Right now, one of the Testimonials that's visible on their site is from Karla, who says, "My daughter gave me a star in memory of my son who passed away at 15." Or Christine who says, "I bought a star after we lost our baby granddaughter to SIDS on March 26, 2007. It brings comfort to me to think she shines on from above." Or Cindy who wrote, "Received one from Make a Wish yesterday for my only child who passed away recently."

When people like this come to observatory open houses, star parties, or planetariums, and then ask to see "their star," many get upset if told that they can't show them where the star "Mr. Fuzzybottom" is because no one recognizes that name other than the company from which they bought the star. This has led many of us - myself included - to quietly stew when asked this question and then just point to some semi-bright star somewhere and say, "that's it." It's either lie or make them feel like a sucker, and when you bought something in remembrance of your husband of 60 years, that's not a good thing.

But, the International Star Registry isn't the only one that does this, though they are probably the best known.

Another company out there is called "BuyTheStars." In my personal opinion, the text on their website is deceitful. They do not tell you your name will not be recognized. In the answer to the question on their website, "Do I really get a star named after me?" their answer is in part:

"BuyTheStars is an official star registration company and all records of stars named and sold are sent to the international star name and registry in Dallas, TX . Once you have purchased and named your star, the details are sent and permanently recorded in the database. ... Once completed, a certificate (and package) is sent out to you (or the addressee) detailing the stars [sic] location and new name. This name will be the new internationally recognized name for the star under the coordinates specified on the certificate. You can then be satisfied knowing that you (or the persons whom you named the star(s) after) will join the thousands who have already secured their place in the heavens."

The disclaimer on the bottom of their website states, "All stars are named and recognized under the Buy the Stars brand name."

They don't state anywhere that I could find in their FAQ that this ISN'T recognized by anyone but them, they just say it is recognized by them and leave everything else out. They also don't answer a question of if their star is visible ... the FAQ question is, "Will I be able to see the constellation?" in which they don't say anything about the star, just that, "Most constellations are visible to the naked eye, though some do require binoculars or a telescope." Which is wrong. The whole point of a constellation is that they've been visible as long as we've had written history, people seeing patterns in the sky and those being the constellations today. They also state, "We will use your shipping location to pick out a constellation that is visible from your area." Again ... no mention of the actual star.

So, yes, if you really know what's going on, then you realize that this is just some novelty. If you don't really know much about the sky nor astronomy, you can easily be taken for a ride.

Buying Real Estate, and John Lear

This brings us to the second topic of this episode, buying land on other planets and moons. If you do an internet search for "buy land on moon" or "mars," you'll come up with many different websites that offer to sell you a deed to property on these extraterrestrial bodies. Several of them have websites that are typical of pseudoscience - full of testimonials, "As Seen on TV!" and long pages that haven't been changed since the early days of the internet. You know the kind. Richard Hoagland's site is like that, too. But I digress ...

These companies offer to sell you property for anywhere from $19 an acre to $70 an acre. One, LunarLand.com, offers to sell you 888,750 acres for the low-low price of only $1,155,427.00 USD. After your check has cleared. Another one for Mars only charges you $19.99 an acre, plus $1.51 Martian tax, plus $10 shipping and handling.

Interestingly, many also tell you to beware of other sites which will scam you, that THEIR site is the only legitimate one to sell lunar property or property on other planets.

Several of these websites proudly talk about the law with regards to owning land. I'll preface this by stating that I am not a lawyer. If you who are listening to this now are a lawyer, are interested in looking into this, and would like to get back to me on it, please do.

That disclaimer said, the issue at hand is a 1967 Space Treaty, also known as the Outer Space Treaty. Almost every country in the world except for about half of Africa and half of the middle East has signed the treaty, while if you exclude Central America then they've also ratified it. Meaning that any company in the US, Britain, Canada, Brazil, Russia, Australia, Spain, Egypt, China, India, etc. is sorta kinda bound by it.

What the treaty says that's important for this issue is that no GOVERNMENT can claim any celestial body as their own land. So Saudi Arabia can't wake up one day and say, "We own Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon, we're going to go place our flag there and there ain't nuttin' you can do about it." Granted, they'd probably say that in Farsi, but you get the point.

What these websites point out is that the Outer Space Treaty said what I said - GOVERNMENTs can't do this. They say that individuals and companies can. Here we get into the shaky area of me knowing next to nothing about law. But, from what I have read everywhere BUT these sites that want to sell you a city block on the moon is that it is through governments that land rights are granted. So, for example, in the early days of settling North America, you'd go out and claim your plot of land, build stuff on it, work it, and submit your claim to that land to some local government office to recognize it. Or we have the issue with the whole Israeli settlements - if Israel doesn't actually "own" that land, they can't grant rights to it to settlers.

Another issue is that many countries have legal requirements that a claimant to a particular piece of land must demonstrate "intent to occupy," something that is impossible to do anywhere off-Earth at the moment.

So, all of these companies that claim to be selling you land and cite the Outer Space Treaty as just forbidding government ownership are missing the point that the world governments have to recognize that a particular country owns that land in the first place, and then through that country you can be granted the land ownership rights.

This doesn't stop conspiracy theories. I talked about John Lear in the 19th episode, the one that came out January 16. I mentioned that he made many claims and I only addressed a few. One of them has to do with owning mineral rights on the moon: [Coast to Coast AM clip, January 17, 2007, Hour 2, starting 20:34].

Similarly, Wikipedia has other somewhat humorous stories:

Adam Ismail, Mustafa Khalil and Abdullah al-Umari, three men from Yemen, sued NASA for invading Mars. They claim that they "inherited the planet from our ancestors 3,000 years ago". They based their argument on mythologies of the Himyaritic and Sabaean civilizations that existed several thousand years B.C.E.

Gregory W. Nemitz claimed ownership of Asteroid 433 Eros, on which NEAR Shoemaker landed in 2001. His company Orbital Development issued NASA a parking ticket for $20.

Bottom-Line

Now, I think that most people realize that claiming to own parts of the Moon or Mars or Venus or Kepler-22b or whatever is silly. But that begs the question, why isn't it as silly to think that you can buy star names?

The only way stars - and craters, something I didn't address specifically in this episode but which are also out there - are recognized is within their own company and their own products. They take your money, enter something in a database, and send you a pretty piece of paper and maybe a booklet and a starchart with "your" star circled.

The only OFFICIAL and RECOGNIZED naming body is the International Astronomical Union. The IAU has very strict rules on the naming of objects, and there are subcommittees made up of subcommittees made up of more subcommittees that discuss this kind of stuff. I'll link to their page on buying star names in the show notes.

One way you CAN LEGITIMATELY get your name on a chunk of stuff in space is to either discover an asteroid or comet, or have someone who discovered an asteroid name it after you. The IAU rules for naming comets are that they're named after the first person to discover it, or anyone else who reports it within 24 hours of the first person. The rules for asteroids are pretty much anyone can have their name on it. So if you discover an asteroid tomorrow, and it's confirmed, you can name it BillyLeeJoe if you want, though it will also have a number based on the order it was found. So it might be 9513845 BillyLeeJoe. Or 519385 JeffSykes.

Seriously though, the bottom-line here is that buying star names or extraterrestrial real estate is a scam. And when I say that, a reminder that by "scam" I mean in the sense that it is very misleading to the public, with people being led to think that it is now an official name that is "recorded 'forever' in existence."

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 2. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:

Anonymous   Location unknown

6:46pm on Sunday, March 25th, 2012

1) Fake. I found a site that lists 9110 stars brighter than mag +6.5, which is close to 10,000 but from any particular dark sky site, you wouldn't see the ones that are too far south or north, nor the stars that are up during the day.

http://www.alcyone.de/brightest_stars.html

2) Fake. I searched Google Books and other sources, and found some second-hand stories about "lunatics" claiming to own the moon, and a story about a man named John Debree claiming to own the moon in order to ridicule him, but I couldn't find any first-hand claims.

3) Fake. Galileo tried naming them after the Medicis, though.

Rick K.   St. Louis, MO, USA

12:04am on Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 

1: Fake - most sites I found listed anywhere from 1000-6000 stars visible.
2. Fact - Best I could find pointed back to 1890's, so barely qualifies as "1800's", and was not so much about property rights.
3. Fake - Info I found pointed to Galileo offering the Medicis first rights to name the "stars" he had discovered orbiting around Jupiter. No mention about ownership of the surfaces.

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