September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

California Skies for February and March 2012

Posted: Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

by Robert Victor

These are great months for viewing bright planets in the early evening! Students will enjoy following brilliant Venus and Jupiter through their closest pairing on March 13, and viewing four planets simultaneously in late February and early March. During Feb. 22-Mar. 7, the moon forms attractive early evening groupings with four of the five bright planets and three of the five bright zodiacal stars. After returning to the early evening sky on Mar. 23, the moon sweeps past four bright planets during Mar. 25-Apr. 6.

Evening planets: At dusk in February-March, Venus, the brilliant “evening star”, is well up in WSW to W, higher and farther north as weeks pass. Moving east 1.2° to 1.0° per day against background stars, Venus aligns with the east side of Great Square of Pegasus on Feb. 12, and will pass very close to the Pleiades cluster on April 2-3.    

Venus brightens from mag. –4.1 to –4.5 during February-March, enough to spot in daylight.  Daytime sightings are easiest just before sunset, when Venus is to upper left or above the setting sun, by 40° on Feb. 1, widening slowly to 46° at greatest elongation on Mar. 26. Telescopes show Venus’ phases, nearly 3/4 full and 1/4 arcminute across at the start of February, to just half full and 0.4 arcminute across near the end of March. Watch for striking changes in this planet’s telescopic appearance during April and May, as it swings closer to Earth and grows to nearly one arcminute (1/60 of a degree) across. The thinning crescent can be resolved even with binoculars, if observed in daylight or soon after sunset. In Palm Springs Unified School District, we are planning to have students observe Venus through a telescope repeatedly during the ten weeks leading up to its transit across the sun’s disk on June 5.

Jupiter is next brightest “star” at dusk, to the upper left of Venus in Feb. and early March, and below Venus in late March. Near mag. –2.2 in late Feb., Jupiter is about one-sixth as bright as Venus, but presents a full disk 0.6 arcminute in diameter, twice as large as Venus appears then. At midtwilight, Jupiter is high in SSW on Feb. 1, and just a quarter of the way up to overhead in W at end of March.


Watch the waxing crescent moon climb past Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter Feb. 22-26. Follow links to the February 2012 Sky Calendar at, and to the PowerPoint slide show illustrating events through August 2012 at, and to two sets of illustrations, a color set for February-March, and a black-and-white set for January through August. Also, watch Venus close in on Jupiter until their spectacular pairing just 3° apart on March 13: Venus-Jupiter are separated by 40° on Feb. 1, and one degree closer daily, to 12° apart on Feb. 29. Ve-Ju stay within 5° of each other during March 9-17.

Mars rises north of east just over 3 hours after sunset on Feb. 1, to just minutes after sunset on Feb. 29. The red planet nearly doubles in brightness that month, from mag. –0.5 to –1.2, outshining all stars except Sirius. On Feb. 1, Venus and Mars are less than 1° above opposite horizons about 3.2 hours after sunset (from lat. 40° N). With each passing day, Venus sets 2 minutes later, and Mars rises about 5 to 6 minutes earlier. By February’s second week it should be easy to spot Venus-Jupiter-Mars simultaneously.

Mercury during late Feb. and early Mar. appears 33° to 27° lower right of Venus. It is then possible to see four planets Me-Ve-Ju-Ma simultaneously. On Feb. 22 Mars rises just before Mercury sets, and after that date, spotting four planets at once becomes easier with each passing day.

Saturn in February rises in ESE 3 to 4 hours after Mars. For most of March and April, it will be possible to see another selection of four planets simultaneously, in order Ve-Ju- (or Ju-Ve- after Mar. 13) Ma-Sa. On March 2 Saturn will rise just before Venus sets, and as Saturn rises earlier and Venus sets later daily, it will become easier each day.


Around Feb. 19, “Spaceship Earth” is moving toward head of Scorpius in morning sky and away from the Pleiades star cluster in evening sky. Regulus appears at opposition, 180° from sun. As you observe planets in evening, visualize effects of differences in their orbital speeds in following weeks: Speedy Mercury on Feb. 19 has just emerged into visibility from far side of the sun, and will reach greatest elongation on March 4, and inferior conjunction (passing nearly between Earth and sun) on March 21. Venus, hidden on far side of sun in mid-August 2011, will reach greatest elongation 46° from sun on March 26, and inferior conjunction ten weeks later as it transits sun’s disk on June 5. Earth is leaving Jupiter behind, so the giant planet will sink into bright twilight in late April and reach conjunction on the far side of sun on May 13. In February 2012, Mars and Saturn rise after sunset. But Earth will overtake them, causing them to rise very near the time of sunset on their respective dates of opposition (and greatest brilliance), Mars on March 3, and Saturn on April 15.

In a series of beautiful conjunctions visible at dusk, the waxing crescent moon passes Mercury on Feb. 22, Venus on Feb. 25, Jupiter on Feb. 26, and the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster on Feb. 28. On Feb. 29, the first quarter moon, half full and 90° from the sun, passes the Hyades star cluster and Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull. On March 3, the waxing gibbous moon passes widely south of Pollux and Castor, the Gemini Twins, and on March 6, the moon is a few degrees south of Regulus, heart of Leo the Lion. Finally on March 7, the full moon is widely south of Mars.

Four nights later, on March 11, those willing to stay up until four hours after sunset will see the waning gibbous moon in a gathering with Saturn and Spica.

The moon returns to the early evening sky as a thin crescent low in the west on March 23. Mercury will be gone, but you can catch the waxing crescent moon near Jupiter on March 25, and near Venus on March 26. The waxing gibbous moon will appear near Mars and Regulus on April 3. Three days later on April 6, the moon, just past Full and rising in twilight, will be closely accompanied by Spica and Saturn.

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.