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The Celestial Dragon


Last updated 9/14/2023 at 11:18am

Have fun with Draco, the dragon this summer. You can find the constellation using the pointer stars in the Big Dipper.

As August arrives, the full moon will overwhelm our night sky with its light. But once the moon leaves the early evening sky later in the week, you might enjoy getting out and searching for Draco, the dragon.

Now, Draco isn't one of the top 10 stellar groupings that people can name, but I'm always surprised when I mention it that folks chuckle as if I were making it all up.

I admit that I've been known to do just this from time to time because, well, it helps to keep me amused. But I'm not making anything up; Draco is real, and you should have little trouble finding this celestial dragon in a reasonably dark sky.

To locate it, first identify the seven stars of the Big Dipper low in the northwestern sky shortly after dark. Draw an imaginary line among these stars and you'll trace a "bowl" of four stars and a bent "handle" of three more. British skywatchers know this grouping as the Plough, while Germans and Scandinavians know it as the Great Wagon.

If you follow the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper's bowl – these are known as the "pointer stars" – from the bowl's bottom to its top, and extend that line about five times the separation of these two stars, you'll point directly toward Polaris, the North Star.

From this important star emerge the handle and bowl of the Little Dipper. This miniature dipper is smaller, fainter and inverted from the Big Dipper, but if you live in or near the lights of a large city or have bright moonlight, you probably won't be able to see it at all.

It's between these two famous dippers that you will find the celestial dragon, a large and ancient constellation that appears nightly in the northern sky. It wraps itself around the north celestial pole and remains perpetually above the horizon for much of the Northern Hemisphere.

Look for its long string of stars that begins nearly between the Big Dipper's pointer stars and Polaris. This end marks the tail of the dragon. Follow the string of stars upward until it snakes back down toward Polaris, where it makes another sharp turn and heads upward once again.

At the upper end of the sinuous, dragonlike body lies a group of four stars that forms the head of the dragon, but modern amateur astronomers refer to this shape as the "lozenge."

One of the most interesting sights in Draco lies near the opposite end of the dragon. The third star up from its tail appears a medium-bright star called Thuban, whose name not coincidentally derives from an Arabic word meaning "dragon."

Because of the 25,800-year wobble of our Earth's axis, this star – and not Polaris – was the North Star some five millennia ago when the Egyptians were building pyramids. If we wait patiently for another few millennia, we'll again see Polaris drift away from the north celestial pole and watch as Thuban takes its place again as the North Star – a sort of back to the celestial future.

Now don't start chuckling. I'm not making that up either!

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