The Draco Constellation

Draco is a constellation in the far northern sky. Its name is Latin for dragon. It was one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy and remains one of the 88 modern constellations today. The north pole of the ecliptic is in Draco. Draco is circumpolar (that is, never setting), and can be seen all year from northern latitudes.

Thuban (α Draconis) was the northern pole star from 3942 BC, when it moved farther north than Theta Boötis, until 1793 BC. The Egyptian Pyramids were designed to have one side facing north, with an entrance passage geometrically aligned so that Thuban would be visible at night. Due to the effects of precession, it will again be the pole star around the year AD 21000. It is a blue-white giant star of magnitude 3.7, 309 light-years from Earth. The traditional name of Alpha Draconis, Thuban, means “head of the serpent.” There are three stars under magnitude 3 in Draco. The brightest star in Draco is Gamma Draconis, traditionally called Etamin or Eltanin. It is an orange giant star of magnitude 2.2, 148 light-years from Earth. The aberration of starlight was discovered in 1728 when James Bradley observed Gamma Draconis. Nearby Beta Draconis, traditionally called Rastaban, is a yellow giant star of magnitude 2.8, 362 light-years from Earth. Its name shares a meaning with Thuban, “head of the serpent.” Draco is home to several double stars and binary stars. η Draconis is a double star with a yellow-hued primary of magnitude 2.8 and a white-hued secondary of magnitude 8.2 located south of the primary. The two are separated by 4.8 arcseconds. Mu Draconis, traditionally called Alrakis, is a binary star with two white components. Magnitude 5.6 and 5.7, the two components orbit each other every 670 years. The Alrakis system is 88 light-years from Earth. Nu Draconis is a similar binary star with two white components, 100 light-years from Earth. Both components are of magnitude 4.9. R Draconis is a red Mira-type variable star with a period of about 8 months. Its average minimum magnitude is approximately 12.4, and its average maximum magnitude is approximately 7.6. It was discovered to be a variable star by Hans Geelmuyden in 1876.

The constellation contains the star recently named Kepler-10, which has been confirmed to be orbited by Kepler-10b, the smallest rocky Earth-sized planet yet detected outside of the Solar System.

One of the deep-sky objects in Draco is the Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), a planetary nebula approximately 3,000 light-years away that was discovered by English astronomer William Herschel in 1786. It is 9th magnitude and was named for its appearance in the Hubble Space Telescope. NGC 6543 has a very complex shape due to gravitational interactions between the components of the multiple stars at its centre, the progenitor of the nebula approximately 1,000 years ago. It is located 9.6 arcminutes away from the north ecliptic pole to the west-northwest. It is also related to IC 4677, a nebula that appears as a bar 1.8 arcminutes to the west of the Cat’s Eye nebula. In long-term exposures, IC 4677 appears as a portion of a ring surrounding the planetary nebula. There are several faint galaxies in Draco, one of which is the lenticular galaxy NGC 5866 (sometimes considered to be Messier Object 102) that bears its name to a small group that also includes the spiral galaxies NGC 5879 and NGC 5907. Another is the Draco Dwarf Galaxy, one of the least luminous galaxies with an absolute magnitude of −8.6 and a diameter of only about 3,500 light years, discovered by Albert G. Wilson of Lowell Observatory in 1954. Another dwarf galaxy found in this constellation is PGC 39058.

Draco also features several interacting galaxies and galaxy clusters. One such massive cluster is Abell 2218, located at a distance of 3 billion light-years (redshift 0.171). It acts as a gravitational lens for even more distant background galaxies, allowing astronomers to study those galaxies as well as Abell 2218 itself; more specifically, the lensing effect allows astronomers to confirm the cluster’s mass as determined by x-ray emissions. One of the most well-known interacting galaxies is Arp 188, also called the “Tadpole Galaxy”. Named for its appearance, which features a “tail” of stars 280,000 light-years long, the Tadpole Galaxy is at a distance of 420 million light-years (redshift 0.0314). The tail of stars drawn off the Tadpole Galaxy appears blue because the gravitational interaction disturbed clouds of gas and sparked star formation. Q1634+706 is a quasar that holds the distinction of being the most distant object usually visible at magnitude 14.4, it appears star-like, though it is at a distance of 12.9 billion light-years. The light of Q1634+706 has taken 8.6 billion years to reach Earth, a discrepancy attributable to the expansion of the universe.

The Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall, possibly the largest known structure in the universe, covers a part of the southern region of Draco.

The February Eta Draconids is a meteor shower that was discovered on February 4, 2011. Observers noted six meteors with a common radiant in a short period. Its parent is a previously unknown long-period comet. Credit: Wikipedia.