September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Celestial Highlights, February Through Early March 2016

Posted: Sunday, February 7th, 2016

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

For much of February, early risers can enjoy all five bright planets before dawn. The waning Moon sweeps past all five bright planets Jan. 27-Feb. 6, and in its next time around, past four planets Feb. 24-Mar. 7. Jupiter begins rising in evening twilight. 

On our evening and morning mid-twilight charts, showing the five naked-eye planets and the 16 stars of first magnitude or brighter visible from southern California, stars always shift from east to west (left to right) in the course of the month, as a consequence of the Earth’s revolution around the Sun.

February’s evening mid-twilight occurs about 40 minutes after sunset from southern California. Sirius is the brightest object plotted on our evening chart until very late in month, when Jupiter appears above the horizon just north of due east.

Sirius and Capella are the southern and northern vertices and brightest members of the huge Winter Hexagon, with a seventh star, Betelgeuse, inside. Regulus and Jupiter follow the Hexagon across the sky. But you needn’t wait until nearly month’s end to see them; just look later in the evening. By Feb. 18 Regulus is at opposition and visible all night — note it is shown on both charts — while Jupiter rises just after the end of twilight some 1½ hours after sunset. Jupiter will be at opposition on the night of March 7-8, as Earth passes between that planet and the Sun.

After Sirius, the next brightest star is Canopus. At the end of February, both stars climb to their highest points, due south, very soon after the end of evening twilight, Canopus doing so just 21 minutes before Sirius does. From Palm Springs, Canopus at its best stands just 3° above the horizon.



During January 27-February 6, the Moon passes all the naked-eye planets in the morning sky. These events were described in this column for January. Our February morning twilight chart depicts the complete 5-planet panorama almost all month. Its two brightest members are Venus in SE to ESE, and Jupiter in WSW to W. On a line connecting them are reddish Mars in S, and Saturn in SSE. In all but the closing days we find Mercury very low in ESE; it is within 7° lower left of Venus in all of February, and within 5° of it during Feb. 6-21, both planets appearing lower each morning. The two innermost planets display their least separation, 4.0° apart, on Feb. 12-14. Since Mercury remains east (lower left) of Venus throughout this apparition, neither planet passes the other, and they have a quasi-conjunction, defined as an approach within 5° without a conjunction.

Not far off this lineup of planets, find three bright zodiacal stars: Reddish twinkling Antares, heart of Scorpius, to lower right of Saturn; and blue-white Spica in Virgo, between Jupiter and Mars. Extend the line of planets westward beyond Jupiter to locate Regulus, heart of Leo, to Jupiter’s lower right. Other bright stars are high above the ecliptic (Earth’s orbit plane): Golden Arcturus, very high in southwestern sky; blue-white Vega, high in ENE. Completing the Summer Triangle with Vega are Altair to its lower right and Deneb to its lower left.

February’s thinnest old crescent Moons, on mornings of Feb. 6 and 7, were described in the January issue. New Moon, invisible near the Sun, occurs on Feb. 8 at 6:39 a.m. PST.

During Feb. 9-22, track the waxing Moon in the evening sky, within an hour after sunset. The first crescent, only 3 percent full, will be seen very low, 10°-15° south of west in evening twilight on Tues. Feb. 9, some 36 hours after New Moon for observers in California. The Moon reaches First Quarter, half full, on Sunday evening, Feb. 14. An occultation of Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, will take place on the next night. Find that bright star a few degrees east of the Moon at dusk on Mon. Feb. 15, and watch the Moon narrow the gap until the star disappears behind the Moon’s dark side a few minutes after 1:00 a.m. PST Feb. 16, not long before they set.

The waxing gibbous Moon will leapfrog over a line joining Pollux and Procyon a few nights later, between the evenings of Feb. 18 and 19. Passing Full, the Moon will skip past Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion, in the eastern evening sky, from Feb. 21 to 22. The Moon rises some 40 minutes before sunset on the 21st, and just a quarter-hour after sunset on the 22nd. On the 23rd, the Moon still rises in twilight some 70 minutes after sunset, a few degrees to the lower right of bright Jupiter. Over the next week, the Moon rises 50-55 minutes later each night, and soon can no longer be viewed at a convenient early evening hour.

Follow the Moon Feb. 22-Mar. 7 by shifting your viewing time back into morning twilight, about one hour before sunrise. On Feb. 22, catch Regulus just 3° north (upper right) of the Full Moon in the western sky an hour before sunrise.

On Feb. 24, look for bright Jupiter about 5° lower right of the waning gibbous Moon. On Feb. 26, catch Spica 6° to Moon’s lower left. On morning of Feb. 27, six solar system bodies span 150° across the sky. In order from W to ESE, locate Jupiter, Moon, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and possibly Mercury, just over 6° lower left of Venus. Binoculars can give you last views of the innermost planet before it slips into bright twilight on its way toward the far side of the Sun.

On morning of Feb. 29, Mars is just 4° lower left of the Moon. On morning of March 1, the Moon is approaching Last Quarter phase and appears just over half full. Look for Mars 9° to its lower right; Saturn 9° to Moon’s lower left; and Antares 9° below the Moon and nearly 9° lower right of Saturn.

On March 2, find Saturn within 5° lower right of a fat crescent Moon. On March 3, the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, appear 150° apart. Do you recall seeing them just over one degree apart in the eastern morning sky last Oct. 25 and 26? The next pairing of these bright planets will be very close, and very low in the western evening twilight on Aug. 27, 2016.

On the morning of March 6, look in ESE to find Venus 10°-11° to the lower left of the crescent Moon. Your last view of the old Moon during this cycle will come on Sunday, March 7. The very slender crescent, just 3 percent full and about 1½ days before New, will appear 4° to the left of Venus. New Moon, invisible, occurs on March 8th at 5:54 p.m. PST.

The next lunar cycle begins on the evening of March 9, when at mid-twilight the thin, young 1 percent crescent will be very low, just south of due west, at an age of 24-25 hours after New Moon.

Visualize the following events, using the modeling activity following this article.

On the morning of March 6, Spaceship Earth is carrying us toward the planet Saturn. Following our curved path around the Sun, our faster-moving home planet will overtake that ringed planet on the night of June 2-3. On that night, Saturn will appear at opposition to the Sun and be visible all night. But before then, on the morning of Feb. 19 (night of Feb. 18-19), our planet passes between Sun and Regulus, and that star will appear at opposition, 180° from Sun. On morning of March 8 (night of March 7-8) Jupiter takes its turn at opposition and all-night visibility. On morning of April 13 (night of April 12-13) Spica appears at opposition, and on night of May 21-22, Mars will do so. Oppositions of all three bright outer planets in 2016 will occur within a 3-month interval, early March to early June! Follow Regulus, Jupiter, Spica, Mars, Antares, and Saturn sinking in the western morning sky until their oppositions and a little beyond. After opposition, each object can be conveniently viewed in the evening sky.

Notice on the morning chart that the outer planets, like stars, drift toward the western horizon as weeks pass. We will overtake Jupiter on night of March 7-8, Mars on night of May 21-22, and Saturn on night of June 2-3, causing these planets to appear at opposition. But Mercury and Venus in Feb. 2016 are heading toward the far side of the Sun (reaching superior conjunction on Mar. 23 and Jun. 6, respectively), and sink closer to the eastern horizon each morning. On what date will you last spot Mercury? Venus? On what date (in March) can you last see Venus and Jupiter just above opposite horizons? After Mercury and Venus pass superior conjunction, when and in what part of the sky will each planet next be seen?


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 Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. 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.

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.