Throughout history there have been many dragon myths. With a body like a huge lizard, walking on two pairs of enormous legs, emitting streams of fire from its gigantic mouth, Draco has been the largest, most feared and worshiped of them all.
Draco (DRAY-koh) is the eighth-largest constellation in the northern hemisphere but it’s not easily visible in high light pollution areas. Draco displays a sinuous pattern of stars aligned in a dragon-like shape winding around the north celestial pole star Polaris. Draco is one of the few remaining constellations that look the same today as it did in ancient times.
Draco’s head forms a boxy group of stars positioned north of the star Vega and is the easiest part of the dragon to find on clear nights. The star Rastaban is one of the dragon’s eyes, known as the “head of the dragon.” The brightest red-orange star in the head is Eltanin which is Arabic for “the serpent.” From the head it’s long upper body winds towards the constellation Cepheus (the king) then swirls around the planetary nebula NGC 6543 “the cat’s eye” and aims back towards the constellation Hercules. Near the middle of the dragons body is the mysterious spiral galaxy NGC 5866 that is viewed edge on giving it a cigar-shaped appearance. Thuban, an unexceptional star today, lies in the middle of the dragon’s long tail, positioned more than 25 degrees from Polaris. Draco then turns and slithers westward between the well-known constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Finally the tail ends at a star named Dra, the abbreviation for Draco, settling east of Polaris.
Because the Earth’s axis shifts position over time, the star closest to the north celestial pole also changes. Today Polaris is the pole star, but 4,000 years ago that position was occupied by Draco’s star Thuban. This means that the ancient Egyptians oriented their temples to Thuban which was the pole star of their time and the heavens truly did appear to revolve around Draco. The ancient Egyptians visualized Draco’s large head as belonging to a crocodile or a hippopotamus. It was later civilizations that dreamed up a mythical twisting dragon weaving around Polaris.
The myths surrounding this famous dragon most likely began with the Babylonian goddess Tiamat, who turned herself into a dragon and was defeated by strong winds blown into her mouth. This caused her to split in two, one half becoming the sky, the other half becoming the earth and the dragon still prevails in the night sky today.
The Greeks later retold this myth stating that Draco attacked Athena in an ancient Titan battle. Athena is said to have grabbed Draco, hurled its body into the sky, where it wrapped around the north celestial pole, staying forever in this battered and twisted form.
Other Greek myths portray a great beast guarding the Golden Fleece or Gold Apples and being slain by Hercules with his poisoned arrow.
The Chinese still have tales of a dragon who eats the sun or moon during an eclipse.
Actually there are is no fossil evidence that dragons ever existed on earth but when you hear tales of serpents, dragons or even Dracula, they are all representative of the dragon in the sky, Draco.
Annually there is a meteor shower tribute to Draco called the Dracoinds appearing every Oct. 8 to 9. It’s generated from the comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner and produces a slow peak rate of 10 meteors per hour.
Shortly after dark you can begin viewing Draco when it reaches its highest point in the sky, April through August, and try to find its body winding for nearly 180 degrees around Polaris. The best time to see Draco is in July when we celebrate with fireworks and look straight up after they are gone to see the famous dragon that also shoots imaginary fire into the night sky.
For information regarding location and current visiting hours go to communityobservatory.com and be sure to “Like” the Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory on Facebook.