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 certainly 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 really know what dragons look like anyway. You can’t actually go the Minnesota or Como Zoo to see one. Actually, according to 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 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 less than brilliant stars mark the end of the snake dragon’s neck. I believe 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 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. It kind of looks like a backwards 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 switch blade 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 minus a whole bunch of blood as well as 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.
Without a doubt Draco is not one of the easiest constellations to find, but looking for it and finding it will really sharpen your stargazing skills. The first quarter half moon on its way to being full next week will also add to the challenge a bit. Wind down from your busy day and look for Hera’s loyal and now unwound celestial dragon.
Diagram of Draco...Click