March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

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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California Science Curriculum Framework Now Available

Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.

For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.

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.

Call for CSTA Awards Nominations

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. 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.

Call for Volunteers – CSTA Committees

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017


CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: 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.

A Friend in CA Science Education Now at CSTA Region 1 Science Center

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw

If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see 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.

Learning to Teach in 3D

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Joseph Calmer

Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”

I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: