Twistin’ and curving your way around Draco in the night sky

  • By Mike Lynch Special for The Herald
  • Thursday, November 6, 2014 3:20pm
  • Life

I hope you’re enjoying your autumn stargazing as much as I do. What a way to relax. Just make sure that before you start your serious stargazing you take the time to get your night vision, even if you have to put up with moderate light pollution as I do in my backyard. The best way to do that is to relax. Lie back in a reclining lawn chair and give yourself a good 20 minutes to get used to the darkness.

In light polluted areas you’ll still have a hard time seeing many constellations in the lower half of the sky, but you’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll see the stars higher up once you get your night vision.

Then, armed with a headband flashlight with a red filter over the lens so you can see your star charts and maps without losing your night vision, it’s time to explore the Everett celestial dome. By the way, you can buy headband flashlights with white and red lights in the camping section of most department stores. If you’re using a star map app on a smart phone or iPad make sure you turn the red filter on. Most of them come equipped to turn your screen red.

Some constellations are easy to find and some are more challenging. If you feel like a challenge set out to find Draco the Dragon. It’s not totally impossible because part of the tail of the dragon lies between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper and the head of the beast is near the bright star Vega. It is one of the largest constellations of the sky. The constellation, according to Greek and Roman mythology, is supposed to be a dragon, (whatever they’re supposed to look like). In actuality it resembles a coiled snake, although that goes along with how Draco the Dragon made it to the sky, uncoiled and stretched out!

The great but unraveled dragon is hanging in the lower northwestern evening sky. You may want to pull up my November star map from my website: to help you. Draco basically resembles a backward “S”. The best thing to do is face directly to the west as best you can. Just under halfway up from the western horizon to the overhead zenith will be Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky. You can’t miss it. Vega is the brightest star in another constellation, Lyra the Harp. Assuming you’re facing west, look about ten degrees to the right of Vega toward the northern horizon for a fairly distinct but lopsided trapezoid of four faint to moderately bright stars. They outline Draco’s head. By the way, ten degrees is about the width of your fist held at arm’s length against the sky.

From Draco’s head high in the northern sky look about 15 degrees to the upper right for two more faint stars. That 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 a little to the lower right and then goes straight down in a nearly straight line of brighter stars about 15 to 20 degrees long.

The tail of Draco then kinks to a nearly horizontal line to the right and ends right between the cup sections of the Big and Little Dippers.

Again Draco is not one of the easiest constellations to find, but looking for it and finding it will really sharpen your stargazing skills. Light pollution will definitely affect your ability to see it. One of the tricks of the trade that may help you a bit is called “averted vision” that sounds crazy, but really works. If you’re reasonably sure you’re looking in the right direction for what you’re trying to see, tilt your head just a bit and look a little out of the corner of your eye. Your vision is a little more sensitive in that part of your eye.

Greek mythology offers multiple stories about Draco. In one legend Hera, the queen of the gods, was presented with a beautiful set of solid gold apples as a wedding gift from her new husband Zeus, the king of the gods. She kept the precious apples in her private garden at the castle and had her pet dragon Draco guard her most prized possession.. She actually loved them more than Zeus, especially after she found out what a louse the king of the gods really was, which is a whole other story. Anyway, Draco was her pet since childhood and was extremely local to Hera. He guarded those apples 24/7 and fended off many dastardly thieves.

One very dark cloudy night Draco was snoozing a bit after Hera treated him with a steak dinner. Hercules, the legendary hero who’d been spying and casing Hera’s palace for several days, spotted the snoozing Draco and leapt into action. He smashed the palace gate and charged into the garden toward the golden fruit. Draco bolted out of his slumber and a titanic battle between Hercules and Draco ensued that went on for hours. Draco just about had Hercules trapped in his coiled tail when Hercules, with all his might, managed to free his right arm and was able to reach into the side of his boot and pull out a dagger. With an unbelievable thrust he ripped into the chest and heart of Draco. Hercules tossed the deceased dragon off to the side and made a fast getaway into the night with his plunder of golden apples.

Hera discovered Draco’s body and the empty oversized jewelry box where she kept the apples. As upset as she was about losing the golden apples, she was more upset about losing the pet she’d loved 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. Not a pretty site at the time, it has since turned into the great but challenging constellation for us stargazers to discover.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at

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