Imagine you're starting a new chapter of your life by buying a brand new home. It's a universally coveted, usually life-changing purchase that brings a world of excitement and opportunity. Who doesn't want a place to call their own? But then suppose that you meet the seller to collect the keys to the property, only to be given a paper certificate showing its location on a map instead. It has your name on it, but there are no keys and when you visit the address, you discover it's really a public library. According to the seller, a third-party company, the library is yours. At least, that's what it says in their company database. But the librarians don't believe you, and nor do any of the patrons. You might feel as if you've been had.

This is exactly what happens when you buy yourself or someone else a star. You pay a private company, with no legitimate claim to the nomenclature of celestial objects, and they print you a worthless certificate. Your chosen name is entered into the company's database, and as they alone see it, the star you were assigned now has a name.

You might take your certificate to a local observatory or planetarium and ask the resident astronomers to point out your star for you, but don't be surprised if they decline the request. They will be rolling their eyes and sighing at the thought of another person being ripped off by companies whose business model relies upon misleading naive members of the public.

There's a chance that the star on your certificate isn't readily visible in the hemisphere you live in. It may be far too faint to be visible to the eye, and in some cases too faint to be visible even with a decent amateur telescope. In any case, the astronomers probably won't want to give up their time to help you see it in the sky.

Most likely, they will feel sorry for you, because the naming rights for stars are simply not for sale, and never will be. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which among many other functions arbitrates the names of astronomical objects and features, maintains a concise but comprehensive page of questions and answers related to the naming of stars. Regarding the sale of naming rights, it states: 
Some commercial enterprises purport to offer such services for a fee. However, such "names" have no formal or official validity whatsoever. Similar rules on "buying" names apply to star clusters and galaxies as well.
Star names are seldom granted, and only when there is agreement within the IAU's relevant committees. New names must adhere to a set of rules that are in keeping with the long-held traditions of cataloguing the sky. At no point can any name be sponsored by any individual or organisation. The IAU concludes:
Thus, like true love and many other of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy. True, the 'gift' of a star may open someone's eyes to the beauty of the night sky. This is indeed a worthy goal, but it does not justify deceiving people into believing that real star names can be bought like any other commodity.
The same thing is true of 'land' on other worlds, such as the Moon and Mars. There are many companies purporting to have a legal basis for selling extraterrestrial plots, but these too are illegitimate and their products amount to nothing more than a printout and private database entry. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) proposed the Outer Space Treaty in 1966, and it was ratified in the following year. Signed by all major space-faring nations and 112 countries in total (as of 2022) it is foundational to space law, and establishes the principles by which nations (and their citizens) must share the ownership of space. Article 2 of the treaty states:
Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
So it is that the Moon and stars cannot be claimed, owned, bought or sold. They can only be found, freely, by anyone willing to go looking. No one can sell you what is already yours.

It's slightly ironic that the idea of naming a star, well-marketed as a romantic gift, resonates so strongly with so many, because stars are hardly rare. Our own galaxy contains more stars than the sum total of all humans that have ever lived; across the Universe, stars outnumber the sand grains on all Earth's deserts and beaches. You could plant a tree in someone's name, and from a cosmic perspective it would be considerably less common and thus more special than a star. 

But if your heart was originally set on buying someone a star, why not buy them the gift of stargazing instead? It's a wonderful hobby that will provide a lifetime of fascination and discovery. You could purchase a telescope or a book to help them explore their interest in the sky. If you want to do something astronomical in memory of a loved one, consider a donation to a non-profit such as Astronomers Without Borders, to help more people access and enjoy the splendour of the stars worldwide.

There are so many meaningful gifts we can give and other things we can do to celebrate each other, and there is simply no need to feed these spurious companies selling tacky certificates. If you know someone who is likely to fall victim to such deceit, give them a friendly warning not to waste their money, and steer them instead towards the real and completely free beauty of the stars.

Image credits: Tom Kerss