September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Celestial Highlights, December 2015 Through Early January 2016

Posted: Friday, December 11th, 2015

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller.

In evening twilight in December, the Summer Triangle is well up in the west, getting lower as the month progresses. Its brightest member is blue-white Vega, at its northwest (lower right) corner. Altair marks the southern point of the Triangle, and Deneb the northeast corner, above Vega. [Follow the Summer Triangle within the first hour after sunset until mid-January.]

Solitary Fomalhaut, marking the mouth of the Southern Fish, drifts low across the southern sky in December evening twilight. From late in December’s second week into early January, try for Mercury very low in the southwestern twilight glow; binoculars make the search easier.

Yellowish Capella climbs in the northeast, while to its lower right, ascending in east-northeast to east, we find red-orange Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull. This star is at opposition to the Sun each year around the start of December, so as we gaze at that star then, we face almost directly away from the Sun. Low in the east below Taurus, rising into view during twilight in late December, we find Orion’s two brightest stars, reddish Betelgeuse marking one shoulder, and blue-white Rigel marking his upraised foot. Robert Frost, in the opening lines of his poem The Star Splitter, described the scene: “You know Orion always comes up sideways, throwing one leg up over our fence of mountains…” Rising at about the same time, or just a bit later from southern California, are Pollux (and Castor above it, not plotted because it is not quite first magnitude), the bright stars of Gemini, the Twins.

In December’s morning twilight, Venus, in the southeast, ranks first in brilliance. Next is Jupiter, high in the southern sky. Third in brightness is twinkling Sirius before it sets in west-southwest, and next a nearly 3-way tie between Arcturus very high in east to southeast, Vega ascending in northeast, and Capella sinking in northwest.

Before Rigel sets south of west, look for the Winter Hexagon. In clockwise order beginning at Sirius, its other members are Procyon, Pollux (with Castor), Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, and back to Sirius, with Betelgeuse inside. At month’s end, all that remains of the Hexagon in morning twilight is an arch, in order from W to NW, Procyon, Pollux (with Castor), and Capella.

Regulus marks the heart of Leo the Lion, chasing the Hexagon across the sky. Regulus is within 0.5° north of the ecliptic (plane of Earth’s orbit). Following Regulus and in line with it is an almost straight lineup of planets Jupiter-Mars-Venus, and finally Saturn, emerging in the southeast by the middle of December. Blue-white Spica, only 2° S of the ecliptic, appears not far off the lineup of planets: Venus passed 4.2° N of Spica on Nov. 29, and contrastingly colored, dim, red Mars will pass 3.6° N of that star on Dec. 23. By the latter date, Antares will have emerged some 6° to the south (lower right) of Saturn. Venus will appear very close to Saturn on Jan. 8 and 9. The Moon passes all these planets and bright zodiacal stars as listed below.

One additional star appears on our December morning twilight chart: Deneb, rising in the far northeast late in month, to the lower left of Vega. By mid-January, watch for Altair, the south point of the Summer Triangle, rising just north of due east. For a few days in mid-January, the Summer Triangle, well north of the plane of Earth’s orbit, is visible low in W to NW at dusk and low in E to NE at dawn.

Watch for these events:

  • Fri. Dec. 4, morning–Jupiter 5° upper right of Moon.
  • Sat. Dec. 5, morning–Mars 5°-6° lower left of Moon.
  • Sun. Dec. 6, morning–Spica 5° lower right of Moon.
  • Mon. Dec. 7, morning–Spica midway between Venus and Mars, 10° from each. Spectacular close conjunction of crescent Moon and Venus in morning twilight. Continue observing after sunrise and witness a daytime occultation of Venus by the Moon. From Los Angeles, binoculars and telescopes show the leading sunlit edge of Moon covering Venus at 8:04 a.m. PST, and the trailing dark edge of Moon (invisible in daylight) uncovering Venus at 9:53-9:54 a.m. From Palm Springs, these events occur about 4-5 minutes later. From San Francisco, Venus is covered from about 7:53 a.m. until 9:38 a.m.; from Sacramento, about 1-2 minutes later. For California, the covering of Venus begins near 7:53 a.m. PST along the northwest coast, and sweeps across to the southeast corner of the state by 8:20 a.m. The uncovering sweeps across the state from the northwest corner to the southeast during 9:25 a.m. until 10:01 a.m. While Venus isn’t covered, this is a great chance to use the Moon to help locate Venus in the daytime! Telescopes show Venus now in gibbous phase.After Dec. 7, the waning Moon can be followed for 2-3 additional mornings. On Thurs. Dec. 10, 40 minutes before sunup, try for the very thin old crescent, only 20-21 hours before New, very low in ESE. Binoculars will be helpful for spotting it, and possibly emerging Saturn, rising within 3° to Moon’s lower right.
  • Mon. Dec. 21–Saturn 6.2° N of Antares (minimum distance).
  • Wed. Dec. 23–Mars 3.6° N of Spica (minimum distance).
  • Thurs. Dec. 31–Moon 3° lower right of Jupiter.
  • Sun. Jan. 3–Mars 3° lower left, Spica 5° lower right, of Moon.
  • Wed. Jan. 6–Moon-Venus-Saturn, with Antares to lower right.
  • Thurs. Jan. 7–Venus-Saturn-Moon, with Venus 6.4° N of Antares (min. dist.) Venus within 6°, Saturn 9°, to lower left of Moon.
  • Fri. Jan. 8–Last old Moon. Venus about 0.7° upper right of Saturn.
  • Sat. Jan. 9 —Venus now 0.4° lower left of Saturn.
  • Sun. Jan. 10–Each day, Venus appears just over 1° farther E of Saturn.

Illustrations of events mentioned above appear in Sky Calendar. For a sample issue and how to subscribe, visit

An activity, Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets, to help students investigate visibility of bright planets and first magnitude stars, is available at the CSTA website. As stars and planets come and go in morning and evening skies and display beautiful pairings and groupings, students can model these changes and explain their observations with the aid of items provided: Two planet orbit charts, Mercury through Mars and Mercury through Saturn; a table of data for plotting planets on orbit charts (.docx file); and a sheet with questions on star and planet visibility in 2015-2016 (.docx).

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.

 Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts and the planet orbit charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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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.