Celestial Highlights for December: Venus at its best before its January departure from evening sky.
Posted: Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
by Robert Victor and Robert D. Miller
Our evening twilight map for December depicts the sky about 44 minutes after sunset from southern California and 48 minutes after sunset from the northern reaches of the state. In early December, we find Venus near its brightest and highest, in the southwest; the Summer Triangle of Vega-Altair-Deneb, high in the west; and Fomalhaut, mouth of the Southern Fish, just east of due south. As December opens, the only bright objects in the eastern sky in mid-twilight are Capella the Mother Goat star in the northeast, and Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, very low in ENE. Wait a few minutes to allow the evening sky to darken a bit, and you’ll notice the compact Pleiades or Seven Sisters cluster 14° above Aldebaran. The scene is beautifully described in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Locksley Hall: “Many a night I saw the Pleiades/rising thro’ the mellow shade/glittering like a swarm of fireflies/tangled in a silver braid.” Don’t miss the view of the Pleiades through binoculars!
By month’s end Venus is much lower in WSW, because it’s heading toward inferior conjunction on Jan. 11. The Summer Triangle is lower too, and Fomalhaut has crossed to west of south, both changes owing to Earth’s revolution around the Sun. Betelgeuse and Rigel, the brighter shoulder and foot of Orion, the Hunter, appear above the eastern horizon 4 minutes earlier each evening. Between them lies a vertical line of three stars – Orion’s belt! Poet Robert Frost in The Star Splitter (telling about a farmer who set fire to his house to collect insurance money to buy a telescope – to split stars!) describes what you can observe at this time of year: “You know Orion always comes up sideways/throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains…”
Do not miss Venus near the crescent Moon early on Thursday evening, December 5. It’s also a great chance to spot Venus in the daytime, about 7° from the Moon all afternoon. In fact, if you know when and where to look, you can find Venus in
broad daylight on any clear day this month. First aim your binoculars at a distant horizon feature, and focus. Next, point toward Venus, sweep until you find it, and observe its current crescent phase, which will get thinner and larger in size as this month progresses! Take care that you do not aim binoculars at the Sun.
An easier time to spot Venus in the daytime is just before sunset. By observing in the daytime or at sunset you avoid the glare of Venus against a darkened sky, and you’ll find the planet’s crescent phase easy to resolve even with the low magnification of binoculars. Take advantage of the opportunity to have your students observe the crescent Venus with telescope or binoculars in the weeks before and after its inferior conjunction with the Sun on Jan. 11, 2014. These opportunities come at intervals of just over 19 months, surrounding Venus’ passage between Earth and Sun. Your next chance will come during the summer months of 2015, surrounding the inferior conjunction of Venus in August of that year.
Our morning twilight map shows the sky about 3/4 hour before sunup. On Sunday, December 1, five solar system bodies are easily visible. From west to east, they are Jupiter, about halfway from horizon to overhead in west; Mars, even higher in SSE; and a clustering of Saturn, the old crescent Moon, and Mercury low in ESE. The Moon isn’t plotted on our all-sky chart, but the attractive gathering is pictured on a separate diagram from the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar. From California, Saturn is 4° above the thin Moon, and Mercury appears within 4° to Moon’s lower left. There’s less than 35 hours until the invisible New Moon (on Dec. 2 at 4:22 p.m. PST), so the Moon will be gone by Monday morning. Mercury drops out of sight in December’s second week, on its way to the far side of the Sun on Dec. 28.
The two brightest objects in our morning sky are steady Jupiter sinking in W toward WNW, and twinkling Sirius, until it sets in WSW. On Dec. 1 our Spaceship Earth is heading in the direction 10° east (left) of Regulus. As Earth curves around the Sun in the next five months, it will overtake the slower-moving outer planets: Jupiter in early January, Mars in early April, and Saturn before the middle of May. As a result, these planets, along with their background stars, will progress toward the western horizon in our morning sky, and will appear above our eastern horizon in the early evening sky. Morning and evening twilight charts for each month through the end of 2014 and exercises to help students understand and enjoy the changing visibility of planets and stars, are available at www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/msta/
On Dec. 2, Mars appears midway between Regulus and Spica, 27° from each. By Dec. 29, Mars has moved 3/4 of the way toward Spica, enroute to passing that star in early February, in the opening event of their triple conjunction.
The Moon returns to the morning sky after mid-December. On the 17th, the Full Moon sets around sunrise. If you enjoy chasing very thin crescent Moons in twilight, there’ll be three chances in coming weeks, in addition to the gathering of the old Moon with two planets on Sun. Dec. 1: (1) A young crescent on the evening of Tues. Dec. 3, age 25 hours, very low in WSW 28° lower right of Venus; (2) A very old crescent on the morning of Tues. Dec. 31, 21 hours before New, very low in ESE 20° lower left of Antares; and (3) An challenging, extremely young crescent in the very early evening on Wed. Jan. 1, age 14 hours, within 8° lower right of Venus.
This year’s display of the Geminid meteor shower is largely spoiled by bright moonlight. Best viewing with least moonlight will occur in predawn hours this year, on Fri. Dec. 13 in the two hours between moonset and the onset of dawn twilight, and on Sat. Dec. 14 in the hour between moonset and twilight.
Comet ISON passed within 725,000 miles of the Sun’s surface on Thanksgiving Day and made a sharp turn to the north, or upper left of the predawn Sun. By Dec. 6 it will rise just south of east as morning twilight begins. Using binoculars about 1-1/4 hours before sunrise, look 21° lower left of Saturn for a pair of 3rd-mag. stars Delta Ophiuchi 1.4° above Epsilon. On Dec. 6, Comet ISON is just above Delta, and on following mornings it moves 2° farther to the north (upper left) of that star daily. By Dec. 18-19, the comet shifts northward 3° per day, peaking at 3.7° at closest approach to Earth, 40 million miles, on Dec. 26. But by then, if not much sooner, the comet may have faded to well below naked-eye visibility. Visit www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/ison/ for updates on the comet and links to more info.
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, 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.
Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016
by Jessica Sawko
In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.
At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/ai/infomeeting.asp.) Learn More…
Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
by Carol Peterson
1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. https://www.engadget.com/2016/08/25/google-offers-360-degree-tours-of-us-national-parks/. Learn More…
Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!
Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award
The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…
Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016
by Peter A’hearn
NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?
The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…
Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016
by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt
Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…