Some constellations are easy to see, and some are not. Draco the Dragon is not the easiest of constellations to find in the Rochester sky, 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.
While it’s a large constellation, most of Draco’s stars aren't faint. 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!
To find 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.
Your Draco challenge is well underway. 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 mark the end of the snake dragon’s neck. 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 fairly stars stars that stretch down about two 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!
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, 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 plundering of golden apples.
Hera discovered Draco’s body and was incredibly upset about losing the golden apples, but more upset about losing a pet. Hera rewarded 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.
Unwind with Draco!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is rochesterskies.org.