Until three years ago, an ordinary-looking star in Hydra, the water snake, was known only by some catalog numbers — at least two dozen of them.
In June of 2018, though, the star got a proper name. Astronomers called it Felis, the cat. It’s not because there’s anything cat-like about the star itself, though. Instead, the name honors the extinct constellation Felis, which occupied that region of the sky.
The constellation was created by Joseph Jerome Lalande, in 1799. The French astronomer had helped plot the distances to the Sun and Moon, which provided the scale of the entire solar system. And he occasionally drew new constellations. He did so pretty randomly, though; an acquaintance once noted that Lalande’s creations often appeared after bouts of drinking.
Lalande liked cats, so he decided to grace the stars with one. He took a few stars from around Hydra and the adjoining constellation Antlia, the air pump. He showed his creation to another astronomer, who published it in a star atlas in 1801.
The constellation didn’t last, though. In 1930, astronomers formalized a list of official constellations, and Felis missed the cut.
In 2018, though, they decided to name a star in that part of the sky to honor Felis. They picked one that’s more than 500 light-years away. Right now, it’s low in the southwest as darkness falls. Under dark skies, it’s just visible to the unaided eye — the final “meow” for the celestial cat.
Script by Damond Benningfield