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February 13, 2010

An obscure cat pads through the northern sky at this time of year. It's known as Lynx, and it stands high in the northeast in early to mid evening. It's about halfway between the outer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper and the bright "twins" of Gemini.

German astronomer Johannes Hevelius named the constellation about 300 years ago. At the time, there was no well-established star pattern in that region of the sky, mainly because it doesn't offer any bright stars. Hevelius named the faint stars he saw there for a lynx -- not because they formed the shape of a cat, but because he said observers must have the eyes of a lynx to see it.

The brightest star in Lynx is at its southeastern tip. It has no proper name -- it's simply designated by the Greek letter "alpha" followed by the name of the constellation.

Alpha Lyncis is about 220 light-years from Earth. The distance is a bit uncertain. But if the estimate is right, then the light we see from the star tonight began its journey through space around the year 1790 -- just as George Washington was settling in as the first president of the United States.

Alpha Lyncis is a red giant, which means that it's old and bloated. Fairly soon, its outer layers will puff away into space, leaving only a hot cosmic cinder called a white dwarf. When that happens, Lynx will lose its brightest star -- so you really will need the eyes of a lynx to see what's left.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 1997, 2002, 2005, 2009

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