Some constellations are easy to see and some are not. Draco the Dragon is not the easiest of constellations to find, but once you do, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something. It always reminds me of one of the great Beatles classics, “The Long and Winding Road,” because that is what it truly is in the northwestern October sky. It’s undoubtedly one of the larger constellations in the heavens, but the problem is that most of Draco’s stars aren’t all that bright. The best way to find Draco is to visualize it more as a coiled snake rather than a dragon (like we know what dragons look like, anyway).
In Greek mythology, Draco is supposed to be a stretched-out dragon, so the snake appearance really works … but we’ll visit that later.
To begin your quest of locating Draco, face the west and look for the brightest star you can see. That will be Vega, high in the western sky and the brightest star in the small constellation Lyra the Harp. Look a little to the right of Vega for a modestly bright trapezoid of four stars that outline the head of the Dragon. This is where you find Draco’s brightest star, Eltanin, but honestly it’s not all that bright. This is what we’re up against here.
Your Draco challenge is well under way. Continuing to face west, hold your fist out at arm’s length. At about two of your “fist-widths” to the upper right of Draco’s head, you’ll find two faint stars fairly close to each other. These less-than brilliant-stars mark the end of the snake dragon’s neck. I think locating those two stars is the key to seeing the rest of Draco. From those two stars, the main section of Draco’s body coils downward. Look for a more or less vertical crooked line of more modestly bright stars that stretch down about 2-and-a-half fist-widths at arm’s length. From there you’ll see a fairly faint but distinct horizontal line of stars that kinks off to the right that depicts the tail of Draco. You’ll observe that Draco’s tail lies just above the much brighter Big Dipper and just below the dimmer Little Dipper. I hope between my description and the star map you can find Draco. It kind of looks like a backward letter S.
How poor Draco wound up unwound in the sky is quite the mythological tale. One of the versions goes like this: Hera, the queen of the gods, was given a gorgeous basket of solid gold apples as a wedding present from her new, but not so faithful husband, Zeus, the king of the gods. She kept her precious apples in her private garden at the castle and had her pet dragon named Draco guard the apples. Draco was Hera’s pet since childhood and was extremely loyal to her. He guarded those apples 24/7 and fended off many dastardly thieves. No one got by Draco — until one fateful night.
On that moonless night while Draco was taking a catnap at his post, Hercules, the legendary hero, blitzed and smashed the palace gate and leaped toward the golden fruit. It was a lightning raid! Draco rousted himself immediately and a tumultuous battle broke out that went on for hours and hours. Draco just about had Hercules trapped in his coiled tail and was about to squeeze the life out of him when, with all his might, Hercules managed to pull his emergency switchblade dagger out of his shoe and pierced it right through the beast’s heart. Hercules then made off with his plunder of golden apples.
Hera discovered Draco’s body minus a whole bunch of blood as well as the absent apples. She was incredibly upset about losing the golden apples but was more upset about losing a pet she’d known all her life. Hera decided to reward Draco for his loyalty by magically placing his body in the stars as an eternal honor. The trouble is that when she picked up his bloody, mangled body and hurled it into the heavens, it quickly and unceremoniously unraveled.
Without a doubt Draco is not one of the easiest constellations to find, but looking for it and finding it will greatly sharpen your stargazing skills. The first quarter half-moon, on its way to being full next week, will also add to the challenge. Wind down from your busy day and look for Hera’s loyal and now unwound celestial Dragon.
Celestial Happenings this Week: Mars continues to dominate the night sky and will do so for many more weeks. It’s the closest to Earth it will be until 2035, so don’t miss it. Jupiter and Saturn are still hunched up together in the early southwestern sky. They continue to get closer and closer in the sky as they move toward their historic conjunction on Dec. 21, when they’ll look like they’re almost touching, only a tenth of a degree apart! In the meantime, this coming Wednesday through Friday evening the first quarter moon will be passing the giants of the solar system.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Lynch Minnesota/Wisconsin Starwatch Programs this week:
- Oct. 19: 7-8:30 p.m. at Afton Elementary School, in Afton, through Stillwater Community Education. For more information call 651-351-8300 or stillwaterschools.org/community-education
- Oct. 20: 7-8:30 p.m., Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul. For more information call TriDistrict Community Ed at 651-306-7870 or tridistrictce.org/
- Oct. 23: 6:30-8 p.m., Middle School football field, Waconia. For information and reservations call Waconia Community Education at 952-442-0600 or isd110.org/
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