People hoping for immortality, or seeking a gift for someone who has everything, are providing a gullible market for businesses claiming to name stars after them. For a price, of course.

These companies promise to name one of the billions of stars in the heavens for the buyer, and record it in a registry so that the star will always bear that name.In addition, they send out a star chart, so the customer can see the actual location of his or her star in the heavens.

The brightest stars have had names for thousands of years, and the others are given numbers by the Paris-based International Astronomical Union, which has no connection with any of the companies offering star names for sale, warn officials of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington.

"The truth is, no one is ever going to call SAO11392 by the name Rufus Q. Fishynoggin, or any other name for that matter," reports Gail S. Cleere in the Observatory's monthly astronomy newsletter.

Sales of these star charts must be brisk, however, because she notes that dozens of people show up at the Observatory every month, carrying a chart and asking to look through one of the big telescopes to peek at their star.

Some offers even claim that their star names are registered with the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress.

"Such claims mislead the public," warns the Library of Congress.

What happens in these cases, is that the company compiles a list of the people who buy star names and sends it to the Copyright office along with a registration fee.

Any list can be protected by copyright - a telephone book, mailing list, whatever - but that doesn't make the star names "official."

An enterprising sales person could just as easily set up a registry of city fireplugs or trees in a national forest, name them for people - for a fee - and sell charts showing the location of each person's official fireplug or tree. The list could be copyrighted, but the names wouldn't be official.