Constellation Report: Draco
archived 10-25-99
Archive file# o102599b
donated by L. Savage

Constellation Report: Draco
by Chris Lancaster

This group of stars has represented a dragon to almost every ancient civilization that looked toward the heavens. The earliest is probably the Sumerians who saw Draco as the dragon called Tiamat, formerly a Babylonian goddess who turned herself into a dragon to give herself a fighting advantage when other gods began challenging her. The Greeks also employed the dragon in their stories of the conflicts between the Titans and the gods of Olympus as well as in the tales involving Cadmus, the founder of the city of Thebes; the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece; and the dragon that protected the fruits of one of the twelve labors of Heracles.

To find Draco, look toward the celestial pole. Its back forms an arch over Ursa Minor, and the head of the dragon looks toward Vega, the bright star in the constellation Lyra. If you look near the middle of the dragon's tail you'll see Thuban, or Alpha Draconis, a magnitude 3.7 star which marked the celestial pole almost 5,000 years ago.

Draco has some excellent double stars to choose from, one of which, Nu Draconis, can be split through steadily held binoculars. Otherwise, use low power with a telescopic view to see these two white stars, both of magnitude 5 and spectral type A5, which have a large separation of 62". Psi Draconis is another easy double star to split, having a separation of 30". These two stars also have a similar spectral type with respect to the other (F5 and F8), so they also appear identically white, but one, at magnitude 5, outshines the other by one magnitude. Probably the most visually pleasing double star is Omicron Draconis. This is also an easy pair to split (34") and to see (magnitudes 4.5 and 7.5), but what makes this duo stand out is its gold and pale blue color contrast.

The remaining targets in Draco are more elusive. Starting with the planetary nebula designated NGC6543 and nicknamed the Cat's Eye nebula, its small size, not its dimness, is what makes this object hard to distinguish from the surrounding stars. It measures no more than 20" in diameter at its outer visible edges, and its brightest central regions probably occupy and area of only about 15". It glows at magnitude 8.6, so its high surface brightness makes it stand out at high magnifications. Even so, I had to spend a few seconds adjusting the focus at 240x magnification to make sure that it didn't sharpen beyond what I saw as a lumpy, egg-shaped fuzziness. Its coordinates are RA 17h 58.5', Dec +66d 38'.

Several galaxies inhabit Draco. Unfortunately, most are too dim to see much detail after spending quite a bit of effort to find them. There are three 11th magnitude galaxies, however, that are fairly easy to locate and are worth visiting. Starting with NGC5866 (RA 15h 6.5m, Dec +55d 46' and sometimes known as M102), this shows a broad oval with flattened extensions of its disk on each side. About 1.5 degrees to the northeast is the fantastic edge-on galaxy NGC5907 (RA 15h 15.8m Dec +56d 19.5'), shining at magnitude 11.0 and, with measurements of 11.5' x 1.7', looking like the blade of a sword floating among the stars.

Finally, there is galaxy NGC6503. If the other galaxies were difficult to spot, this one should be easier since its magnitude 10.5 light is concentrated into a smaller oval. You can find it near the base of the dragon's neck at RA 17h 49.5m Dec +70d 08.7m, or a third of the distance between Chi and Zeta Draconis.

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