From the August 2021 issue

Ask Astro: Why are so many stars named Gliese?

By | Published: September 2, 2021
This simplified diagram from “Stellar neighbors close-up” shows stars out to 16.2 light-years from the Sun. The numbers are their distances in light-years (lys), as measured by the European Space Agency’s Hipparcos satellite. The sizes, which come from the Research Consortium on Nearby Stars, are scaled relative to each other, not to the distances between them. Readers may note that several stars bear the name Gliese.
Astronomy: Roen Kelly
In your July 2020 issue, “Stellar neighbors close-up” shows many stars with the name Gliese. What or who is Gliese?

Patrick Clough
Wichita, Kansas

Wilhelm Gliese was a German astronomer who published his Catalogue of Nearby Stars in 1957. Today, some stars are still referred to by the number Gliese gave them, such as Gliese 380 and Gliese 710.

The history of cataloging and naming stars is a long one. Even before written history, civilizations around the world were giving the brightest stars in the night sky unique names. Some names, like Betelgeuse and Sirius, have survived to modern times from their original cultures and are still used today. However, after the advent of the telescope, fainter stars were discovered and the need for a universal cataloging system grew.

The earliest example of such a catalog still in use today is Johann Bayer’s 1603 Uranometria atlas. In it, Bayer set about labeling the brightest stars in a constellation with the Greek alphabet. His intention was to label the brightest star alpha (α), the second-brightest beta (β), and so on. Unfortunately, his system wasn’t always accurate.

Many other astronomers have attempted to tackle creating an accurate and complete stellar catalog over the centuries. Since 2015, the International Astronomical Union has designated a Working Group on Star Names to formally catalog stellar names. This group has approved many of Gliese’s catalog names; hence, some stars carry his name.

—Caitlyn Buongiorno
Associate Editor