May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Celestial Highlights for January 2015

Posted: Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

updated January 8, 2015, 11:30 am

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

Mercury snuggles up to Venus on Jan. 10, and then backs off. Mars closes in on Venus for next 6 weeks until Feb. 21. Jupiter rises ever earlier in evening, until, starting in late January, Venus-Jupiter can be viewed simultaneously, but low above opposite horizons. Consider an early evening skywatch for the gathering of Mercury, Venus, and Mars, and a predawn skywatch for Jupiter and Saturn!

The Sky Calendar  features illustrations of this month’s attractive gatherings of Moon, planets, and stars.

This January 2015 evening twilight chart plots locations of the five naked-eye planets and stars of first magnitude or brighter visible at dusk:

The six brightest “stars” in evening mid-twilight, in order of brightness, are: Venus in SW to WSW; Jupiter (but only after it rises in ENE before mid-twilight in last few days of month); Sirius (after it rises in ESE late in month); Mercury (while it’s still brighter than zero mag. through Jan. 19); Vega until it drops below NW horizon late in month; and Capella.

Evening planets: Venus and Mercury appear within 3° of each other in first half of January, and approach to within two-thirds of a degree apart on Jan. 10. This event is a quasi-conjunction, because Mercury appears to approach Venus without overtaking it. Mars, appears as a reddish “star” a little fainter than first magnitude, 24° to 10° upper left of Venus. Jupiter, rising in ENE to E just over three hours after sunset on Jan. 1, rises within half an hour after sunset at month’s end. Jupiter will pass opposition to the Sun on Feb. 6 and reach peak brilliance at mag. –2.6.

As we look into the evening sky, we are gazing out the rear window of Spaceship Earth. The two faster-moving inner planets recently passed on the far side of the Sun, (Venus on Oct. 25, 2014 and Mercury on Dec. 8). At the start of January, both have both moved out far enough to be seen. Mercury reaches greatest elongation 19° from Sun on Jan. 14, but Venus will take until June 6 to reach its maximum angular distance from the Sun, 45°. Both planets will overtake us: Speedy Mercury passes inferior conjunction nearly between Earth and Sun on Jan. 30, and Venus will do so in mid-August. If proof of Venus’ location in 3-D space is needed, examine it through binoculars and telescopes in June and July, just before it exits the evening sky: it will appear backlighted, in crescent phase.



After Jupiter passes opposition on Feb. 6, we will leave that slow-moving planet behind. Jupiter and the winter stars preceding it will get higher in eastern sky as we pass into February, owing to the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. As Orion (marked by Betelgeuse and Rigel) rises higher, Procyon and Sirius follow it into view. Once Sirius has risen, the entire Winter Hexagon Sirius-Rigel-Aldebaran-Capella-Pollux-Procyon-Sirius, with Betelgeuse inside, is in view. Jupiter and Regulus follow the Hexagon across the sky. Other stars visible at dusk mid-twilight until mid-January are the Summer Triangle sinking into WNW (Altair departing soon after mid-Jan., and Vega doing so before month’s end), and lonely Fomalhaut sinking into SW.

This January 2015 morning twilight chart plots locations of the naked-eye planets and stars of first magnitude or brighter visible at dawn:

The seven brightest “stars” in morning mid-twilight, in order of brightness, are: Jupiter, sinking in the western sky; Arcturus high in S; Vega in NE to ENE; Capella, until it drops below horizon in far NW; Procyon low in W early in month; Saturn in SE; and Altair, after it appears in E around midmonth.

Look for an arch of stars, the trailing edge of the Winter Hexagon, before it sinks from view in W to NW, below and lower right of Jupiter. The arch is comprised of Procyon, Pollux, and Castor (not shown, just 4.5° to the right of Pollux), and Capella. Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion, is not far to upper left of Jupiter.

Golden Arcturus is very high in SE to S sky, with Spica below it. Antares is the reddish twinkling star in SE, below steady Saturn.

In mid-January, our Spaceship Earth is heading in the direction of Spica, the first-mag. star near the Last Quarter Moon, half full in morning sky, on Jan. 13. In coming months, as Earth curves around the Sun, it will overtake the slower-moving outer planets: Jupiter in early February, and Saturn after 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 as Earth passes each one in turn.

Consider holding an early morning skywatch, perhaps in your schoolyard starting as early as 1-1/2 hours before sunrise. Solar system highlights include Jupiter and its four Galilean satellites, Saturn’s rings now tipped nearly 25° from edge-on. And the Moon is visible each morning Jan. 5-19 as it wanes from Full to a thin crescent. Best mornings in January with the Moon at a good phase occur in the week of Jan. 12-16. Even if you wait until the normal time of opening the school grounds, the Moon is still fine for daytime astronomy. When the Moon is close to half full, fit the low-power eyepiece of your telescope with a single polarizing filter and rotate the eyepiece to darken the blue sky. January 12-14, with the Moon near Last Quarter (half full) phase, are prime dates.

Morning and evening twilight charts for selected months of 2015, along with charts for plotting the positions of planets in their orbits, and exercises to help students visualize the motion of Spaceship Earth and understand and enjoy the changing visibility of planets and stars, are available at the links below. These twilight charts are drawn for southern California (lat. 34° N, Los Angeles and Palm Springs).

In morning mid-twilight in January, bright blue-white Vega shines in ENE with fainter Deneb to its lower left. By midmonth Altair appears in east, completing the Summer Triangle.

Every year in mid-January, Altair is 30° due north of the midday Sun, making the star equally visible in morning and evening twilight, low in E at dawn and low in W at dusk. The entire Summer Triangle is visible at both those times, with Vega and Deneb higher and to the north of Altair.

In early summer, the Summer Triangle will be visible all night: Low in eastern sky at dusk, high up in the middle of the night, and low in the western sky at dawn. So despite its visibility at dusk and dawn in the chill of mid-January, the configuration is appropriately named.

The Moon passes all five bright planets and the five first-magnitude stars of the zodiac this month. See the January 2015 Sky Calendar for illustrations of all these events. Here are just the Moon-planet pairs: The Moon, in waning gibbous phase, appears near Jupiter from late evening until dawn on the night of Jan. 7-8. A waning crescent Moon appears quite close to Saturn on the morning of Jan. 16. After the invisible New Moon of Jan. 20, a thin young crescent will appear near Mercury and Venus at dusk on Jan. 21, and near Mars on the next evening.

The next Full Moon will occur on Feb. 3, with Jupiter nearby all night.

Begin seeing the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, simultaneously. Starting in late January, they appear just above the horizon in nearly opposite directions in the sky, Venus about to set in WSW, soon after Jupiter rises in ENE. If there are mountains nearby, you may have to wait until sometime in February.

Once you can see both planets simultaneously, keep track evenings until they disappear in late July/early August. On June 30 at dusk, Venus and Jupiter will appear only 0.3° apart! This event should not be missed! Plan to observe it with unaided eye, binoculars, and telescope. You’ll witness quite a change from late January, when these two most brilliant planets stand on opposite sides of the sky!

For more information on sky events in 2015, see these articles and activities.

(A selection of twilight sky charts for use during months of the best planet gatherings.)

(Scroll down to “Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets.” Includes planet orbit charts, a data table for plotting planets, and an activity sheet with 15 questions on visibility of stars and planets in 2015-2016.)

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.