May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

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.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 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.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. 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:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

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