A student’s guide to the night sky in Oxford: March 2014

Science and Technology

March is the month for the planet hunters among us. Not just for the Kepler spacecraft, which recently discovered a haul of 700 new exoplanets, but also for the amateur astronomer. This month sees the Moon very close to many of the Solar System planets, meaning they are impossible not to spot.

Firstly, Jupiter is still one of the brightest objects in the night sky throughout the month and will come very close to a perfectly half Moon on Sunday 7th week – catch a glimpse of it when you come out of Formal in the southwestern sky near the Orion’s belt.
The moon has its second showdown with a planet when it skirts close to Mars midmonth when it is spectacularly full, low in the sky in the southeast. Look for the moon as the pubs let out on the 18th (just after Hilary has ended) for the best view: remember to compare Mars to the stars around it to see how it appears red!

Saturn, as the diva of the solar system and is not willing to give Mars all the limelight, approaches even closer to the moon two days later, at around midnight. Again they will both be visible in the southeastern as the moon begins to wane from full. You will be able to see Saturn pass begind the moon and overtake it throughout the night before it reappears on the other side at around 6am.
If you are always up at that time in the morning (rowers I am looking at you), towards the end of March shortly before dawn, Venus will be extremely bright in the eastern sky. The moon will be a thin crescent by this point and the two together on the sky will create an amazing prelude to a spring sunrise.

For those of you who prefer your night sky objects not to wander, one of the most beautiful constellations will be in prime position this month: Gemini (the Twins). Gemini will be easy to find as it is just up and to the left of the famous constellation of Orion, high in the southwestern skyin the late evening (see star chart). It takes the shape of two very obvious stick men, the heads of which are the two brightest stars in the constellation: Caster and Pollux. They were the famous twin brothers of Helen of Troy in Greek mythology, popping up in all manner of stories from the Argonauts to the legend of Troy.

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The Milky Way band also passes through Gemini; once you have found it, give your eyes about ten minutes to adjust and wait to see the multitude of fainter stars to appear.

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Figure 1: The night sky on 15 March 2014 at 9pm.

IMAGES/ Rebecca Smethurst