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Looking Up column: Catching the Dragon by the tail

Peter Becker
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The Chronicle Express

Looking north as darkness finally settles in on a mid-June evening - around 10 p.m. for mid-northern latitudes - you will see Draco the Dragon, backing up, its tail between the two dippers.

Dragons are fascinating creatures of mythology. One may wonder if there really were dinosaurs that survived into the days of the ancient Britons, Greeks, the Chinese and the early Native Americans, all who have their dragon folklore.

Nevertheless, we have one imagined among the stars, ever with us as it circles close to the north celestial pole and never setting (again, for the mid-northern part of the world, or further north).

One Greek myth states that Draco was the monster that guarded the golden apples of Hesperides. Hercules had a desperate encounter with it, finally succeeding to lay the beast and leave with the precious fruit.

Looking north on June evenings, you will see that the familiar Big Dipper is taking a dive, the “handle” stars up high. The fainter Little Dipper, is to the right of the Big Dipper’s “bowl,” seeming to stand up on its handle. The end star of the handle is Polaris, the North Star.

Between the dippers and arcing over the Little Dipper is Draco’s “dragon tail” and “body.” To the right, the constellation arcs down to a few stars imagined as the dragon’s “feet.” To the upper right is a pattern of four easily seen stars, the dragon’s “head.”

Going back to the tail, find the third star from the end, shining to the right of the Big Dipper’s handle. This is the star Thuban, or Alpha Draconis. This used to be the North Star, around which the entire sky appeared to revolve.

Owing to the precession of equinoxes, around 3,500 B.C., Thuban had the distinction of being the closest naked-eye star to the point where the Earth’s axis of rotation pointed. That axis precesses, or wobbles, exceedingly slow, once in about 26,000 years. That means over several centuries, different stars help people know which way is north at night.

Thuban was worshipped by the Egyptians of that era, and the Great Pyramid was aligned so that Thuban was visible from its inner recesses.

It will be the pole star again around the year A.D. 21,000 - like I said, an exceedingly slow wobble.

The star is of the third magnitude and is about 303 light-years away.

The brightest star in Draco is Eltanin, or Gamma Draconis, and marks either an eye of the dragon or its snout, depending on your fancy. This star is orange, magnitude 2.2 and is 148 light-years from my house.

The Draconid meteor shower appears to radiate from the constellation Draco, peaking on Oct. 8. In 1933 and 1946, this cascade of leftover comet debris produced thousands of meteors an hour, vaporizing in our upper atmosphere.

The moon reaches last quarter on June 13.

This weekend, look for Mercury low in the west-northwest a half-hour after sunset. Binoculars will help. An hour before sunrise, enjoy the very bright planet Jupiter in the south-southwest sky, with less-bright Saturn to the upper left.

Keep looking up at the sky!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.