May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Celestial Highlights for May 2015

Posted: Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

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

Winter’s bright stars are departing in the west. In early May, while Mercury is visible, four planets can be seen simultaneously at dusk. Evenings from now well into July, three showpiece planets are available for telescopic observation. Venus and Jupiter are closing toward their spectacular rendezvous at the end of June.

In May, four of the 15 stars of first magnitude or brighter visible from mid-northern latitudes begin their annual leaves of absence, Evening Mid_Twilight. In order of departure, they are Rigel, Aldebaran, Sirius, and Betelgeuse. In June, Procyon, Capella, and Pollux will follow. These seven stars include all the stars of the huge Winter Hexagon, with Betelgeuse inside. It’s enjoyable and relaxing to look for these stars within an hour after sunset on clear spring evenings and use the DailySkywatchLog  to keep a record of which stars are seen. Those who watch regularly are certain to notice the stars appearing lower each evening at the same stage of twilight and eventually dropping out of view.

This change is a direct consequence of Earth’s annual revolution around the Sun. Follow link at the end of this article to the activity “Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets.”

As seen from Earth from late April through mid-July, the Sun appears to move from Aries through Taurus into Gemini, causing these zodiac constellations and their neighbors to sink into the evening twilight glow, and, after several weeks, to reappear in the eastern sky at dawn. (Exception: Far northern Capella emerges at dawn before it leaves the evening sky.)

The Moon and naked-eye planets provide additional spice for skywatchers. In early May 2015, observers can view as many as four planets simultaneously with unobstructed views toward WNW and ESE. During May’s first week, Mercury shines near mag. 0, and on May 6, reaches its greatest angular distance from the Sun this time around, 21°. Around that date, Mercury also attains its highest position for this year at dusk. The best time to find it may be about one hour after sunset; look about 22° lower right of brilliant Venus. Also on May 6, find bright Jupiter 45° to Venus’ upper left. On May 6, wait until 1.4-1.5 hours after sunset, when Mercury is just 3° up in WNW. Then turn around to find Saturn about the same height above the opposite horizon, in ESE. The lineup of four planets Mercury-Venus-Jupiter-Saturn will span 173° across the sky.

Look a couple of minutes earlier each evening until May 11, and then you’ll find Mercury and Saturn 5° above opposite horizons 1.2 hours after sunset. But by then Mercury has faded to mag. +1.0, and it will fade rapidly in following days.

Much easier than catching four planets simultaneously in May 2015 is viewing three, and you can do so in all of May and well into July! The span of Venus-Jupiter-Saturn starts out 159° long on May 1, shrinking through 150° on May 9, 135° on May 22, to 125° on May 31.Venus and Saturn, the endpoints of the lineup, are both 10° up 2.5 hours after sunset on May 1, improving to 23° up at a very convenient viewing time of 1.3 hours after sunset by end of May. [Data for southern California.]

As a wonderful bonus, these three planets are the most impressive for telescopic observation: Venus starting in gibbous phase, two-thirds full at the start of May, passing through half full in early June, through ever larger and thinner crescent phases as the planet draws closer to Earth; Jupiter, with its cloud belts, and its four bright satellites discovered by Galileo (as were the phases of Venus); and Saturn with its amazing rings, now 24° from edge-on!

Excellent views of these showpiece planets available evenings in May into July 2015 make this a superb time to schedule evening sky watching sessions – star parties! – at schools, parks, camps, and elsewhere folks gather outdoors.

If you haven’t been following the 5-months-long approach of Venus to Jupiter in the evening sky, start now! Venus-Jupiter are 50° apart on May 1, closing to 35° apart on May 16, and 20° on June 1. The gap between the two brightest planets continues to narrow, to 10° on June 14, to 5° on June 21, and only 1/3 of a degree apart on June 30. This spectacular pairing of Venus-Jupiter will provide a great chance to do public astronomy outreach for several evenings around their closest approach on June 30. Illustrations appear on the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar, June and July issues.

Some Moon and planetary events in evening sky in May and early June

Many of these events are illustrated on the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar. A downloadable pdf of the May issue with an evening sky map may be reprinted and distributed free of charge. Go to

On May 1 and 2 in evening twilight, watch the waxing gibbous Moon leapfrog past Spica. Full Moon occurs on the evening of May 3. On May 4-6 two hours after sunset, watch the waning gibbous Moon go past Saturn and Antares.

The Moon returns to early evening sky on May 19, as a thin crescent low in WNW, 21°-22° lower right of Venus. Two days later on May 21, Moon passes 9° lower left of Venus, which now forms an isosceles triangle with Gemini’s “Twin” stars Pollux and Castor. Jupiter is now 30° to Venus’ upper left. On May 23 the fat crescent Moon appears 6° lower left of Jupiter. Catch the half-full First Quarter Moon near Regulus on May 24, and a gibbous Moon near Spica on May 29.

On June 1, the nearly Full Moon appears in SE near Saturn and Antares, while Venus aligns with Pollux and Castor in WNW. That same evening, Jupiter appears 20° to Venus’s upper left, with just 29 days to go until their spectacular conjunction on June 30th!

On June 6 at dusk, Venus reaches greatest elongation, 45° from Sun. Now half full through telescopes, the planet is rounding the apparent end of its orbit as seen from Earth and is rapidly approaching us!

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 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.

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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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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. 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 NGSS 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.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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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.