There may be a starman waiting in the sky, but sadly it isn’t in the celestial form of a new stellar arrangement marking David Bowie’s passing.
You’ve probably seen the reports circulating in the wake of Bowie’s death — the man behind Ziggy Stardust, the original space oddity, and one of the most innovative recording artists of all time is now memorialised with a new constellation.
Unfortunately, he isn’t.
The original story tells that the MIRA observatory in California and Belgian radio station Studio Brussel had registered a new constellation in Bowie’s honour. Formed of seven stars and shaped like the lightning bolt Bowie sported on the cover of his sixth album, 1973’s Aladdin Sane, it could supposedly be seen in the night sky in the vicinity of — appropriately enough — Mars. Except, it turns out, you can’t just decide that a pattern of stars is a new constellation.
Like most things down here on Earth, there are organisational bodies overseeing that sort of thing. In the case of recognising star-stuff, it’s the International Astronomical Union, and they say that the “Bowie Constellation” doesn’t, and tragically, can’t exist.
“The International Astronomical Union has not received an official request to register a new constellation from the Mira Observatory and I cannot find any reference to this ‘registration’ on the Observatory’s website,” Piero Benvenuti, General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union, told WIRED.
It gets worse for would-be starmappers, even ignoring for a moment the delicate matter of placing Bowie in the aether.
“We would be surprised to receive such a request as all of the regions in the sky have already been charted into constellations,” Benvenuti continued. “The IAU named the 88 constellations and defined the constellation boundaries back in 1930 [Delporte, 1930]. As new discoveries were being made, especially of variable stars, it was important for astronomers to have a common map of the entire sky that we can see from Earth. Since the entire sky has already been partitioned, it’s unlikely that new constellations will be considered by the IAU.”
The other major problem with the “Bowie Constellation” is that the stars which comprise it are already in use.
“Although it is a nice gesture towards David Bowie, the proposal in question uses stars that already belong to other constellations,” Benvenuti added. “Sigma Librae is in the Libra constellation, Spica is Alpha Virginis from the Virgo constellation, Zeta Centauri and SAO 204132 are both in the Centaurus constellation, Sigma Octantis belongs to the Octans constellation, whilst Beta Trianguli Australis is from the Triangulum Australe constellation. Using these stars to create a new constellation would not only be confusing for astronomers, but also the general public.”
All is not lost though! While the late, lamented Bowie can’t have a constellation, he can have what’s known as an asterism. As Benvenuti explains, “Asterisms are patterns or shapes of stars that are not related to the known constellations, but nonetheless are widely recognised by laypeople or in the amateur astronomy community. Examples of asterisms include the seven bright stars in Ursa Major known as ‘the Plough’ in Europe or ‘the Big Dipper’ in America. From this perspective, the stars in question can be considered an asterism.”
Ultimately, the Stardust For Bowie project is a beautiful eulogy for Bowie, who was so inspired by space, and in turn inspired so many others. But it’s still not a constellation.