I have such mixed feelings about this time of the year, with autumn officially beginning next Saturday. I really love summer, but every year it seems to go faster and faster. The star watching nut in me loves this time of the year, because I can get to my telescope and astronomical camera earlier in the evening so I don’t have to walk around the next day in a sleep deprived funk, clutching my deep charged coffee.
Watching the stars on these relatively warm September evenings is such a relaxing and great way to unwind after a long day. Speaking of unwinding, one of the great summer constellations has been unwound for a long time. The constellation Draco is supposed to be a dragon in the sky, but it looks more like a coiled snake because Draco got stretched out in the line of duty, according to Greek and Roman mythology. I’ll have more on that in just a bit.
Locating Draco the dragon in the Shamokin sky is not an easy task if you’re new to constellation hunting. To quote the great Beatles classic, it takes a long and winding road in the northwestern evening sky. With the help of the bright neighboring constellations in the summer triangle that Draco winds around, you can slay this challenging celestial dragon.
You may want to pull up my September star map from last week’s Starwatch column or go to my website as your first step in your heavenly hunt for the great beast. In a way, it looks like a backward “S.” It should be dark enough by around 9 p.m. Look nearly overhead for the brightest star you can see. That will be the star Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the harp, and the brightest star in the famous “summer triangle.”
Again, pull up my September star map to check that out. Look about 10 degrees, or the width of your fist held at arm’s length, below Vega in the direction of the northern horizon for the small but distinct lopsided diamond of stars that outline Draco’s head.
From Draco’s head, look about 15 degrees to the lower right for two slightly fainter stars. The line from Draco’s head to those two stars makes up the neck of the stretched out dragon. From there the body of Draco kinks off to the left in a nearly straight line of brighter stars about 20 degrees long. The tail of the dragon kinks to a nearly vertical line from there and ends right between the cup sections of the Big and Little Dippers.
Astronomically, the most significant star in Draco is Thuban, found toward the end of the Dragon’s tail. Thuban used to be the North Star in our sky back around the year 3,000 B.C. Presently, the star Polaris, at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, is within two degrees of the north celestial pole, which is a projection on the sky of Earth’s North Pole. In other words, if you are standing at the North Pole, the North Star will be directly over your head.
The Earth’s axis has a super slow wobble that takes 26,000 years to complete one cycle. Back around 3,000 B.C., the north end of the Earth’s axis was pointing at Thuban. Now it’s directed toward Polaris, and in the year 21,000 A.D. the Earth’s axis will be pointing at Thuban again. You probably don’t want to wait up for that.
So how did Draco the dragon wind up unwound in the celestial dome? Well, the story goes like this. Hera, the queen of the gods of Mount Olympus, was given a beautiful set of solid gold apples as a wedding present from her new, but far from faithful husband Zeus, the king of the gods. She hoarded her precious apples in her private garden at the castle and had her pet dragon Draco guard the apples. Those apples were precious to her not so much for their sentimental value as for their resale value. Even then, she saw the signs that Zeus was a carousing rat and eventually the royal marriage would fall apart, and when it was all over the golden apples would still be hers. If you’re hip to Greek and Roman mythology, you know that Hera was no paragon of virtue either. Draco had been Hera’s pet since she was a little goddess girl and was extremely loyal to the little diva. He guarded those apples 24/7 and fended off many dastardly thieves, including Zeus, when the marriage collapsed.
Zeus never did get the golden apples back. One lonely moonless night while Draco was snoozing at his post, Hercules, the legendary Greek hero, smashed the palace gate and leaped toward the golden fruit. Draco rousted himself immediately and a titanic battle broke out that went on for hours. Draco just about had Hercules trapped in his coiled tail when, with all his might, Hercules managed to pull a dagger out of his shoe and pierced it right through the beast’s heart. Hercules was then off into the night with his plunder of golden apples.
Hera discovered Draco’s dead body and the absent apples. She was greatly 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 to him. The trouble is that when she picked up his bloody, mangled body and hurled it into the heavens, it quickly and unceremoniously unraveled.
Another legend I love about Draco is one that evolved from the early Christian church. They actually saw the constellation as the snake that tempted Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. To them, Draco represented original sin.
Again, Draco is not one of the easiest constellations to find, but looking for it and finding it will really sharpen your stargazing skills. Don’t wait too long to try and find it, however, because as we journey into autumn it starts out the evening lower and lower in the north-northwestern sky until it’s lost in the smudge near the horizon. So while you can, unwind, relax and capture the dragon.
On Sunday and Monday evening, the first quarter moon will be hanging out by the planet Saturn in the early evening low southern sky. Even through a telescope you should be able to see Saturn’s ring system. On Wednesday evening, the waxing gibbous moon will shining just above the super bright planet Mars in the southeast evening sky. Unfortunately, Mars still is experiencing a global dust storm so it’s hard to see much of surface of Mars, even with a larger telescope.
(Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.)