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Dragons in the Sky

Fantasy dragon image

In 793CE, monks writing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded sightings of dragons in the skies above northern England.

"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air." - Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)

While the streaks of fire they witnessed were likely the result of a meteor shower or aurorae, they weren’t the first or the last to see dragons in the night sky. Dr Elizabeth Stanway from Warwick’s Astrophysics research group looks at some of the other legends, myths and stories linking dragons and space.

Draco

If you look northwards in the night sky, there are a group of constellations known as “circumpolar” – over the course of the year, they rotate around the north pole rather than rising and setting as more equatorial constellations do. Of these, the largest is a sinuous form of 14 main stars which wraps itself around the pole, and which has been known as Draco (latin for Dragon) since at least the second century CE when Ptolemy listed it in his catalogue known as the Almagest. It may have been known as far back as the fourth century BCE in a text Ptolemy used as his main source.

In classical mythology Draco was a dragon-form giant who fought the Olympian gods. The goddess Minerva fought the dragon and flung it towards the North Pole, where it froze before it could uncoil itself and recover. An alternative story is that Draco is the dragon Ladon, who was killed by the nearby Hercules as part of his twelve labours.

The constellation Draco hosts a number of bright stars, including Thuban, Etamin and Rastaban (a blue giant, orange giant and yellow giant star respectively), binary stars and variables. Looking deeper, and with a small telescope you should be able to see deep sky objects including the Cat’s Eye Nebula.

The Azure Dragon

In Chinese mythology, the Azure Dragon is a grouping of stars, known as an asterism, which spans a full quarter of the sky. It was identified in star charts dating back to the eighth century CE and referencing much older work. It represents the spring and the east and is divided into seven sectors (or mansions in astrology) which mark the progression of the Moon through the seasons – most of these describe the dragon’s form including its horn, tail and heart.

The Dragon Kings in Chinese mythology are powerful weather and water deities, and are often seen as guardians of different regions, with the Azure Dragon associated with the East China Sea. Just as Draco is commonly used across Western cultures, the Azure (or sometimes Green) Dragon is common to several Eastern and Asian astronomies including in Japan (where he is the guardian of Tokyo) and Korea.

The Heart of the Dragon can be found in the Western constellation Scorpius, where it marked out by the bright red supergiant star Antares.

Other Dragons

Just as dragons occur in mythology worldwide, so there are dragons to be found in other cosmologies and astronomies. In Islamic astronomy, for instance, there was a hypothesised invisible planet known as al-tinnin (“the Dragon”) which was believed by some to be responsible for eclipses.

Even in modern culture, the iconography of dragons when it comes to space remains a strong influence- whether fictional like the “Ice Dragon” constellation of Westeros in the popular Game of Thrones universe, or real like launch of SpaceX’s cargo Dragon and CrewDragon capsules.

 

Published:

23 October 2020

About:

The Astronomy and Astrophysics group at Warwick is interested in a huge range of scales across the Universe: planetary systems, how they form, live and die; stars, stellar binaries and and the exotic physical processes that they allow us to explore; as well as the transient events which mark the end of stellar lifetimes and the galaxies stars inhabit across the Universe. The group started in September 2003 and is both an observational and theoretical group. The group makes use of a wide range of ground-based telescopes, such as ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes (ING) in the Canary Islands, or the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), as well as space telescopes such as NASA's Chandra and ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray observatories and the Hubble Space Telescope. The Warwick astro group partners in the four large spectroscopic surveys (DESI, SDSS-V, WEAVE, and 4MOST) that will start operations throughout 2020-2021.

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