Despite its impressively tall buildings and bright lights, Oxford provides a great view of the night sky even without any specialised kit. As a population, students tend to be nocturnal creatures, especially as winter is coming and the days are growing ever shorter; so it’s about time we all started noticing what’s always above our heads.
Finding your way around the night sky is easy once you know a few constellations; from these you can then jump to other objects. The first step is to figure out which direction you’re facing: if you’re stood in the centre of Oxford at Carfax Tower, facing up Cornmarket, you’re looking roughly North. Similarly, down St. Aldates is South, up High Street is East and down Queen Street is West.
The second step is to remember that the stars do not stay in the same place through the night. Like the Sun, they rise and set, revolving around the North Star (Polaris). So something you saw whilst walking back from a 5pm lecture, you might not be able to see when you’re walking out to the pub later. In the northern hemisphere, in winter, however there will be some constellations which never set, such as ‘The Plough’ (Ursa Major; latin for the ‘Big Bear’) and The ‘W’ (Cassiopeia). These tend to be the most recognisable constellations, so we’ll start with these.
FIG. 1.— The constellation of Cassiopeia consists of five bright stars in a distinctive ‘W’ shape.
At the beginning of the month, in 4th week, Cassiopeia will be directly above your head (the point that astronomers call the Zenith) shortly after last orders is called at the pub; it should be a very distinctive ‘W’ (or ‘M’) shape. If you’re looking for it on the way back from a night out, it will be lower in the north western sky; the perfect view to accompany a late night kebab.
Most of the constellations take their names from legends in Greek mythology. Cassiopeia was a Queen who was punished by Poseidon (chief god of the sea) for boasting that her daughter, Andromeda, was more beautiful than any daughter of the sea gods; so she was chained to a throne and placed in the heavens, doomed to eternally circle the more beautiful pole star. The ancient Greeks really were sticklers for making sure the punishment fit the crime.
As well as Cassiopeia, look for Ursa Major (the constellation which contains ‘The Plough’) in the northern sky with it’s ‘handle’ pointing down towards the horizon. It will rise higher during the night until the ‘pan’ appears upside down in the early morning; a great view for all those on their way back from an all nighter in the library. The Great Bear in Greek Mythology was in fact Callisto, a beautiful woman who Zeus (king of the gods) took a bit of shine to. Zeus’ wife Hera however did not approve and out of spite turned her into a bear; Zeus then made amends (supposedly) by putting her (in bear form) into the night sky.
As well as the stars, some of the most exciting objects to see in the sky at night are the planets. Jupiter will be in the East at the beginning of the night during November and will be one of the brightest object in the sky; you will be able to distinguish it because it won’t twinkle like stars do. If you have any binoculars (originally bought for fancy dress/spying on people/improving your horse-racing experience) you may get a chance of seeing more detail: bands of colour (created by the storm clouds in Jupiter’s atmosphere) or the Galilean Moons (Io, Callisto, Ganymede, Europa). Remember that Jupiter will also move across the sky during the night; if by chance you break out those binoculars on a stealthy walk back to your own bed in the early hours of the morning, it will have moved higher into the southern sky in 5th week and into the south-western sky by 7th week.
Finally, a highly anticipated event is taking place in November (and no it’s not just the Union Ball); the newly discovered Comet ISON will be reaching its closest approach to the Sun towards 7th week. As it approaches the Sun it should become bright enough to see with the naked eye. Look to the East when you’re out in the early hours of the morning around 5th and 6th week and you should be able to see it low in the Eastern sky. Look out for its distinctive dusty tail which will mark it out as a comet rather than any other star. Happy hunting!
FIG. 3.— A star chart showing the position of the stars on the 1st November 2013 at midnight. Just like the Sun, the time that the stars rise and set will change with each day, therefore by the 15th November, this chart will show the positions of the stars at 11pm instead of midnight. To use, hold the map directly above your head aligning the side labelled ‘N’ with north (you’ll notice that the east and west directions appear flipped on the chart, this is so when you hold it over your head, they are the correct way around) and try to match what you see on the map with what you can see in the sky.