200px-DracoCCThe dragon in the stars.

Draco is a constellation in the northern hemisphere, with fourteen main stars making it up. When an image is drawn over the constellation, the image of a wingless serpent is often used, hence the name Draco, which is Latin for ‘the dragon’.

The science bits are that it lies in the third quadrant of the northern hemisphere, and lies between latitudes +90Ā° and -15Ā°. It is the eight largest constellation in the night sky, and is a circumpolar constellation – it never sets below the horizon for the majority of observers in the northern hemisphere. It includes some famous deep sky objects, such as the Cat’s Eye Nebula, the Spindle galaxy, and the Tadpole Galaxy.

The tail of Draco sites between Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and Hercules is the most recognisable neighbour.

Forgive me, I’m an amateur astrologer, who really likes the stars and physics and all these things. I swear, we’ll get to the dragon bit šŸ˜›

Draco was first catalogued as a constellation by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy back in the 2nd Century. Originally the Draco constellation had other stars attributed to it, which were drawn as wings that surrounded Ursa Major, however these got taken away by the another Greek philosopher Thales in the 6th Century.

The brightest star in the constellation is Gamma Draconis, with the other notable being Alpha Draconis, or Thuban, and Beta Draconis, or Rastaban, which both mean the head of the dragon. In ancient times Thuban was actually the Pole star (or North star), but it no longer is due to astrological movements. In time, it will become the North star again though. In total this constellations has 76 stars that make it up, 14 of which form the points for the constellations, and 19 of these stars have planets. It also has a small meteor shower associated with it known as the Draconids.

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Of course, as a heavenly body, there are a number of myths and legends about how there came to be a dragon in the sky, so it’s time to move on from the science to the stories.

The most favoured myth about Draco is linked to it’s neighbour, Hercules. When Hera married Zeus she was given a golden apple tree as a present. She planted this tree in the garden on Mount Atlas, called the gardens of Hesperides, as the daughter of Atlas Hesperides tended it. She placed the dragon Ladon around the tree to make sure that no one could pick the fruit, and Hesperides tended to it along with the garden.

As one of his twelve labours, Hercules was sent to pick the apples from this golden tree. Whilst on the quest he learned that he could not pick the apples himself, so he enlisted the help of the god Atlas. Whilst Hercules distracted Ladon the dragon and killed him (reportedly with an arrow) Atlas snuck by and picked some of the apples, and Hercule completed his task. When Hera learned of the death of Ladon, she became greatly distressed, and as a tribute to the great dragon, placed him among the stars so that he would forever be remembered. Although it is interesting to see that Hercules’s own constellation is positioned so that his foot is directly above the head of Draco.

Another common myth is that when legends and dieties killed a great dragon, as they were often fierce fighters and one of the greatest challenges to overcome, the victor would throw the dragon into the sky, where they would become a constellation, and a memory to the great fight. One legend which involved this act is when the Roman goddess Minerva slew Draco, who was one of the Great Titans, and when she threw him up into the sky he landed around the North Pole.

One final myth is that Draco was a horrible dragon that guarded a scared spring in Greece. Soldiers of Cadmus (the first king of Thebes) who had been sent to gather water were slaughtered in their hundreds when they went to the spring that Draco guarded. Cadmus then fought the dragon himself in an epic battle, and eventually won. As the dragon died, Athena appeared and told Cadmus to pull the teeth from the dragon and sow them into the ground as he would with seeds. Cadmus did as he was told, and the dragon’s teeth immediately grew into a group of armed soldiers who went on to helped Cadmus found the city of Thebes.

Which just goes to show, we can find dragons anywhere that we look, especially in the sky.

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