Draco the Dragon

Several constellations receive mention in my novella, Devouring Light. Cygnus the Swan soars across the eighth sphere. The Great Bear lumbers along its vast curve. And, embracing the freedom of fiction, I created a few constellations unknown to Earth’s history: the Simiae and the Winged Bulls.

But one constellation alone features prominently in my story: Draco.

Blue Dragon Tattoo

Older by far than the planetary spirits, Draco is a wily, jaded creature who’s forgotten the pleasures of living in his neck of the universe. His capricious response to his boredom pushes first Mercurio, and then Haden, toward action that summons catastrophe.

Of course, many an ancient legend about the dragon preceded my own Devouring Light.

According to the ancient Greeks, a dragon named Ladon guarded the garden of Hera, queen of the gods. Within Hera’s garden grew a grove of trees with golden apples that bestowed immortality upon their eater. Nymphs – the Hesperides – tended the garden and occasionally stole the apples. Ladon was given the task of preventing such theft, whether by the nymphs or by other intruders.

The Garden of the Hesperides by Frederic LeightonDespite Ladon’s watchful ferocity, two renowned trespassers managed to steal apples. Eris, the goddess of discord, inscribed her stolen fruit with the phrase “to the most beautiful.” When she rolled the apple into a wedding (from which she had been excluded), she started the Trojan Wars.

Hercules was the other interloper. Of the twelve labors given him, the eleventh was the theft from Hera’s grove. He didn’t attempt the feat himself. Instead he offered Atlas a break from holding up the world, if Atlas were do the deed. Atlas possessed the advantage of being the father of the Hesperides, and he liked the idea of a rest for his shoulders. In fact, he liked it so much that he refused to exchange the stolen apples for the world. He didn’t want it back.

Hercules agreed to take Atlas’ place permanently, so long as he could first rearrange his cloak. Naturally, once Atlas again bore the world on his own shoulders, Hercules did not keep his promise. Not much honor amongst those Greek gods and heroes!

In one version of the myth, Ladon is rewarded for his long vigil by being enthroned in the sky as a constellation. Certainly, the two constellations – Draco and Hercules – are near one another in the heavens.

The ancient Romans told a different tale about the dragon. Draco was one of the Titans, monsters who fought the Olympian gods for dominion over the earth. The war was grievous and long. In the final battle, when the Olympians prevailed, the goddess Minerva confronted Draco. She won and tossed the defeated dragon into the sky. Frozen by the cold northern Celestial Pole, he stayed there for eternity.

In addition to its mythological importance, Draco also possesses elements of interest to astronomy.

The star Thuban – head of the serpent – shines within Draco. It’s a blue-white giant and occupied the position of pole star from 3942 BC to 1793 BC. The ancient Egyptians noted this and built their pyramids with one side facing north and an entrance there that permitted Thuban to be seen within. Because the Earth wobbles on its axis – a cycle that takes 26,000 years – Thuban will become the pole star again in 21,000 AD.

Cat's Eye NebulaThe Cat’s Eye Nebula is located in Draco. It possesses one of the most complex shapes ever seen through the Hubble Space Telescope. Created 1,000 years ago by an exploding star, the nebula features knots, jets, bubbles, and arc-like structures.

The quasar Q1634+706 also inhabits Draco. 12.9 billion light years away, it’s so bright that it’s the most distant object that can yet be seen through an amateur telescope.

And, finally, Draco hosts the meteor shower known as the February Eta Draconids.

On the cultural side of things, I am not the only artist inspired by Draco.

The film Dragonheart presents the constellation as a heaven to which the spirit of any dragon ascends after death, if it has upheld an ancient dragonish oath to guard mankind. The Russian chess master master Fyodo Dus-Chotimirsky named the chess opening of the Sicilian Defense the Dragon Variation, after the constellation. And J.K. Rowling named her antagonist, Draco Malfoy, in the Harry Potter series after the starry Draco.

For more fun trivia behind Devouring Light, see:
What Do Celestials Wear?
The Oort Cloud
The Graces

 

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The Oort Cloud

Draco is the personification of the dragon constellation in my story Devouring Light.

He’s old – ancient, really – jaded, and cynical. Inspired by a visit from Mercurio, the guardian of Sol’s first planet, Draco decides to make trouble merely to entertain himself.

In the course of his adventure, he leaves the solar system, flying through the Oort Cloud toward the closest star, Proxima Centauri.

Dragon

As I wrote of his flight, I had some ballpark time intervals in mind, based on his speed.

Draco is a “celestial,” and I’d posited two modes of travel for my celestials in Devouring Light.

The planetaries (such as Mercurio) and other beings associated with celestial bodies “translate” from sphere to sphere, a slow sort of teleport in which they evaporate while departing one location and congeal as they arrive at their destination.

The constellations and more metaphysical beings must “fly,” physically traversing space rather than wormholing through it.

However, both travel at roughly the same speed: one astronomical unit per hour.

A quick refresher note for anyone who’s forgotten what an astronomical unit is. It’s the distance from the sun to our Earth – 1 AU for short.

Thus when Mercurio visits Haden on Pluto, it takes him about 48 hours to get home to Mercury. (And he’s tired!)

Now the solar system’s a big place, and the Oort Cloud beyond it, even bigger.

I figured that since my celestials took many hours in their travels between planets, traversing the Oort would surely take weeks.

Boy, was I wrong!

Luckily, I decided to do a little research before I continued writing my story. I discovered my mistake before I tangled up my plot line!

Naturally, I want to share some of what I discovered. 😀

NASA's Oort Diagram

So, what is the Oort Cloud?

It’s a vast collection of ice chunks forming a sphere around our solar system.

I say chunks, but they’re big compared to an ice cube. And small compared to a planet. What size? Between 1 kilometer (.62 miles) and 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter.

And, I say ice, which does include water. But methane, ethane, carbon monoxide and other frozen substances also compose these icy clumps.

It is thought that the Oort Cloud was formed in the early days of our sun’s birth, when a bunch of young stars were popping into being in this neck of the galactic neighborhood. The tides between the stars played tug-of-war with the interstellar gases, creating ice balls, some of which stayed with our sun after things settled down.

Comet McNaughtThe stellar neighborhood is quieter now, but the outer Oort remains a fluid place. The sun’s gravity is weak that far away, and passing stars still nudge ice balls out of their orbits. Some get kicked away from the sun altogether. Others come streaming in as comets.

The inner Oort, named the Hill Cloud, is more dense than the outer and shaped like a massive donut. Most of our comets come from the Hill.

So what about Draco and his flight? If not weeks, how long did it take him?

Here are the numbers! And they amazed me. I knew the universe was big, but these boggled my mind.

The Hill Cloud’s inner edge is 2,000 AU from our sun. Which meant it took Draco 83 days to get there. Okay, 83 days equals roughly 12 weeks. So I guess you could say his flight was a matter of weeks.

But that’s just the beginning.

The outer edge of the Hill Cloud is 20,000 AU. By the time Draco exited the Hill, he’d been flying for two years and 3 months. Yikes!

And the outer edge of the outer Oort? At 50,000 AU, Draco passed through it after 5 years and 9 months. Quite a flight!

Good thing Draco is an immortal with vast reserves of strength. He needed it all!

But my story worked fine with these time frames, and I enjoyed exploring our solar neighborhood along with Draco. It’s a fascinating place!

For more of the science behind Devouring Light, see:
The Heliosphere

For some of the mythology behind Devouring Light, see:
The Graces

And for the book itself, see:
Devouring Light

 

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