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Star catalogue

In astronomy, many stars are referred to simply by catalogue numbers. There are a great many different star catalogues which have been produced for different purposes over the years, and this article covers only some of the more frequently quoted ones. Most of the recent catalogues are available in electronic format and can be freely downloaded from NASA's Astronomical Data Center and other places (see links at end).

Historical Catalogues

Although no longer in serious use, mention should be made of Ptolemy's star catalogue published in the 2nd century as part of his Almagest, which lists 1022 stars visible from Alexandria and was the standard star catalogue in the Western and Arab worlds for over a thousand years. Ptolemy's catalogue was based to some extent on an earlier one by Hipparchus from the 2nd century B.C. An even earlier star catalogue was that of Timocharis of Alexandria[?], which was written about 300 B.C. and later used by Hipparchus.

Two system introduced in historical catalogues remain in use to the present day. Those of Bayer's Uranometria are for bright stars, and these are given a Greek letter followed by the genitive case of the constellation in which they are located; examples are Alpha Centauri or Gamma Cygni[?]. See Bayer designation for more information.

The major problem with Bayer's naming system was the number of letters in the Greek alphabet. It was easy to run out of letters before running out of stars needing names. Following up on Bayer was John Flamsteed introduced another system in Historia coelestis Britannica who kept the genitive-of-the-constellation rule for the back end of his catalog names, but used numbers instead of the Greek alphabet for the front half. Examples include 61 Cygni and 47 Ursae Majoris[?]; see Flamsteed designation for more information.

Full-Sky Catalogues

Bayer and Flamsteed covered only a few thousand stars between them. In theory, full-sky catalogues try to list every other star in the sky. There are, however, literally hundreds of millions, even billions of stars resolvable by telescopes, so this is an impossible goal; these kind of catalogs generally try to get every star brighter than a given magnitude.


The Henry Draper Catalogue was published in the period 1918-1924. It covers the whole sky down to about ninth or tenth magnitude, and is notable as the first large-scale attempt to catalogue spectral types of stars. The catalogue was compiled by Annie Cannon[?] and her co-workers at Harvard College Observatory[?] under the supervision of Edward Pickering[?], and was named in honour of Henry Draper[?], whose widow donated the money required to finance it.

HD numbers are widely used today for stars which have no Bayer or Flamsteed designation. Stars numbered 1-225300 are from the original catalogue and are numbered in order of right ascension for 1900.0 epoch. Stars in the range 225301-359083 are from the 1949 extension of the catalogue. The notation HDE is used only for stars in this extension, but even these are usually denoted HD as the numbering ensures that there can be no ambiguity.


The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory[?] catalogue is a photographic atlas of the sky, complete to about ninth magnitude, as a result of which there is considerable overlap with the Henry Draper catalogue. The epoch for the position measurements in the latest edition is J2000.0. The SAO catalogue contains one more major piece of information than Draper, the proper motion of the stars, so is often used when that fact is of importance. The cross-references with the Draper and Durchmusterung catalogue numbers in the latest edition are also useful.

Names in the SAO catalogue start with the letters SAO, followed by a number. The numbers are assigned following 18 ten-degree bands in the sky, with stars sorted by right ascension within each band.


The Bonner Durchmusterung and followups were the most complete of the pre-photographic star catalogues.

The Bonner Durchmusterung itself was published by Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander[?], Adalbert Krüger[?], and Eduard Schönfeld[?] between 1852 and 1859. It covered 320,000 stars in epoch 1855.0.

As it covered only the northern sky and some of the south, this was then supplemented by the Southern Durchmusterung (1886, 120,000 stars), which was then supplemented by the Cordoba Durchmusterung (580,000 stars), which ran through the south in 1892. This in turn was supplemented by the Cape Photographic Durchmusterung (450,000 stars, 1896).

Astronomers preferentially use the HD designation of a star, as that catalogue also gives spectroscopic information, but as the Durchmusterungs cover more stars they occasionally fall back on the older designations when dealing with one not found in Draper.

Star names from these catalogues include the initials of which of the four catalogues they are from (though the Southern follows the example of the Bonner and uses BD), followed by the angle of declination of the star, followed by an arbitrary number as there are always thousands of stars at each angle. Examples include BD+50°1725 or CD-45°13677.

Specialized Catalogues

Specialized catalogs make no effort to list all the stars in the sky, working instead to highlight a particular type of star, such as variables or nearby stars.


Aitken[?]'s double star catalogue

New general catalogue of double stars within 120 deg of the North Pole (1932, R. G. Aitken).

This lists 17180 double stars north of declination -30 degrees.

GJ / Gliese / Gl

The Gliese[?] (later Gliese-Jahreiss[?]) catalogue attempts to list all stars within 25 parsecs of Earth. Numbers in the range 1.0-965.0 are from the second edition, which was

Catalogue of Nearby Stars (1969, W. Gliese).

Apparently, the integers represent stars which were in the first edition, while the numbers with a decimal point were used to insert new stars for the second edition without destroying the desired order. This catalogue is referred to as CNS2, although this name is never used in catalogue numbers.

Numbers in the range 9001-9850 are from the supplement

Extension of the Gliese catalogue (1970, R. Woolley, E. A. Epps, M. J. Penston and S. B. Pocock).

Numbers in the ranges 1000-1294 and 2001-2159 are from the supplement

Nearby Star Data Published 1969-1978 (1979, W. Gliese and H. Jahreiss).

The range 1000-1294 represents nearby stars, while 2001-2159 represents suspected nearby stars.

Numbers in the range 3001-4388 are from

Preliminary Version of the Third Catalogue of Nearby Stars (1991, W. Gliese and H. Jahreiss).

Although this version of the catalogue was termed "preliminary", it is still the current one as of September 2001, and is referred to as CNS3. It lists a total of 3803 stars. Most of these stars already had GJ numbers, but there were also 1388 which were not numbered (plus the Sun, which needs no number). The need to give these 1388 some name has resulted in them being numbered 3001-4388, and data files of this catalogue now usually include these numbers. An example of a star which is often referred to by one of these unofficial GJ numbers is GJ 3021 (see Extrasolar planet).


The Hipparcos catalogue was compiled from the data gathered by the European Space Agency's astrometric satellite Hipparcos, which was operational from 1989 to 1993. The catalogue was published in June 1997 and contains 118,218 stars. It is particularly notable for its parallax measurements, which are considerably more accurate than those produced by ground-base observations.

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