March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

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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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: