Steamboat Springs Peering at us from out of the darkness on spring evenings are the twinkling eyes of Draco the Dragon. The millennia-old constellation of Draco represents Ladon, the mythological dragon that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides. The two stars marking Draco’s eyes are striking because they appear so close together and are nearly the same brightness, making them easy to spot.
Draco is one of several constellations in the sky that depict a creature killed by Hercules, the great strongman from mythology. Hercules was forced to pay penance for the murder of his wife and children by completing 12 nearly impossible tasks, or labors. All of this was a scheme to get rid of Hercules, concocted by the jealous queen of the Greek gods, Hera. In his 11th labor, Hercules was commanded to find the Garden of the Hesperides and bring back the golden apples that grew there. No big deal, except that the apples were guarded by a dragon with 100 eyes, half of which never slept. Hercules summarily killed the dragon with a poisoned arrow and humbly presented the golden apples to Hera. Hera then placed the sacrificial dragon into the heavens as our constellation of Draco.
The eyes of the dragon, Eltanin and Rastaban, can be located high in the northeastern sky around 10 p.m. in late May, just above the dazzling white star Vega.
Eltanin is the brightest star in the constellation of Draco. It is moving toward our solar system and now lies 148 light years away, but 1.5 million years from now, it will be only 28 light years away and will shine as the brightest star in Earth’s sky.
Nu Draconis is another interesting star located near the Dragon’s eyes. A person with exceptional vision might barely discern that this star is double. Binoculars make this obvious, and a small telescope reveals two nearly identical suns, separated by 1,900 times the Earth-sun distance and requiring at least 44,000 years to complete one orbit.
Near the end of Draco’s tail is the star Thuban. Five thousand years ago, Thuban was located near the north celestial pole, like Polaris is for us today. The ancient Egyptians and builders of the Great Pyramid of Cheops aligned the pyramid’s central passage such that their pole star, Thuban, was constantly visible from the bottom of the chamber.
The head of Draco the Dragon is circumpolar as seen from Northwest Colorado. This means that the Eyes of the Dragon are located so close to the north celestial pole that their daily circles remain entirely above our horizon and are always visible. Could this be the origin of the legend that Ladon, the Dragon of the Hesperides, never slept? The eyes of the dragon are always watching.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published all across the world. Visit Westlake’s website at www.jwestlake.com.