May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Celestial Highlights, January Through Early February 2016

Posted: Thursday, January 14th, 2016

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

From March into August 2016, the bright planets, one by one, will enter the evening sky. But now, for a few weeks in January-February, early risers can enjoy all five bright planets before dawn. The waning Moon sweeps past four bright planets Dec. 31-Jan. 7, and past all five bright planets Jan. 27-Feb. 6.

One hour before sunrise, find brilliant Venus in SE, with Saturn nearby to its upper right Jan. 1-8 and lower left thereafter. These two planets are 8° apart on Jan. 1, closing to 5° on Jan. 4. On two spectacular mornings, they’ll appear in the same telescopic field, within 0.7° apart on Jan. 8, and 0.5° on Jan. 9. They’re still within 4° on Jan. 12, widening to 7° on Jan. 15, then to 15° on Jan. 22, and 25° on Jan. 31. Each day, Venus goes E against background stars by just over 1.2°, Saturn by only 0.1°, while Mars goes E about 0.5°. Watch Venus pass 6° N of first-magnitude Antares, heart of the Scorpion, on Jan. 7, and 3° N of Lambda in Sagittarius, the 3rd-mag. star marking the top of the Teapot, on Jan. 28. Steady Saturn is 6.3° to 7.5° from reddish twinkling Antares this month, and stays 6°-9° from that star throughout Saturn’s current apparition, ending when the planet sinks into evening twilight in November 2016.

Bright Jupiter, in SW to WSW an hour before sunup, begins retrograde on Jan. 8 and barely moves against stars this month, but it will shift 10° W in four months, Jan. 8 to May 9. This apparent temporary reversal of Jupiter’s motion is centered on the planet’s opposition and all-night visibility on night of March 7-8, when faster-moving Earth will overtake the giant planet. Mars, in SSE to S in this month’s morning sky, is 6° to 21° E of Spica. On Feb. 1, Mars will pass 1.1° N of 3rd-mag. Alpha Librae. Once Mercury emerges from Sun’s glare in late January, all five naked-eye planets will be on display, in order Me-Ve-Sa-Ma-Ju, in an impressive panorama across the southern morning sky.

See the Summer Triangle in Winter! Dusk: On what date this month will you last see Altair, southernmost star of the Summer Triangle, in evening sky? Dawn: On what date will you first spot Altair in morning? Each year around Jan. 15-16, as Earth follow its orbit around our Sun, the Sun appears to pass 30° south of Altair. That star is then above horizon much longer than the Sun and (along with the other Summer Triangle stars Vega and Deneb, higher and farther north) Altair can be seen at both dusk and dawn for several days. Try it!

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More on morning planets: Jupiter (mag. –2.3 in mid-Jan.) with its big 0.7-arcminute disk, dark cloud belts, and four Galilean satellites, and Saturn (mag. +0.5) with its ring system now tipped 26° from edge-on, are favorites for telescopic viewing. They’re available together mornings in the early months of 2016, and evenings from late spring into summer. (If you’d like to schedule a session for your students when both Jupiter and Saturn are visible in 2016, you may want to consider a predawn viewing in January or February before an evening session in June to August, when sunset will occur quite late.) Bright Venus (mag. –4) in Jan. shrinks to 0.2’ (arcminute) across, while increasing from 77 percent to 85 percent illuminated. (Venus will pass behind the Sun in early June 2016.) Mars (mag. +1.3 to +0.8) starts 2016 as a tiny disk 0.1’ across, 90 percent illuminated. By opposition and closest approach in late May, Mars will triple in apparent size and match Jupiter in brilliance! Mercury brightens from mag. +1.2 to 0.0 at dawn in last ten days of January, and continues to brighten into February.

Saturday Jan. 10, Look for the waxing Moon within an hour after sunset each evening Jan. 10-23.

Thursday, Jan. 14, Mercury at inferior conjunction, as the planet goes between Earth and Sun, while passing north of the solar disk. At its next inferior conjunction, on the morning of May 9, there will be a transit of Mercury across Sun’s disk. During that event, a telescope fitted with a suitable solar filter over the front end will allow viewing of Mercury as a tiny black dot moving across the face of the Sun.

Sun. and Mon., Jan. 17 and 18, Venus-Mars are 45° apart in morning sky.

On Jan. 18, Ve-Sa-Ma-Ju span 90°. Ma-Ju are 45° apart.

Tues. Jan. 19: Moon’s leading dark edge, invisible in daylight, occults or covers Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull, around sunset in California. Trailing bright edge of Moon uncovers star in early evening. Times of star’s disappearance and reappearance for Palm Springs, 5:06 p.m. and 6:16 p.m. PST; in the Bay Area, around 5:04 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. Use a telescope to watch the star disappear and reappear. Once the star reappears, check at various times during the evening and watch the Moon pull away from the star. Look again on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

Sat. Jan. 23, one hour before sunrise
Moon and five naked-eye planets span 170°. Including bright zodiacal stars, in order of increasing distance W of Sun, we have: Mercury low in ESE; Venus in SE; Saturn with Antares 7° to its lower right; Mars in S; Spica in SSW; Jupiter and Regulus in SW to W; and nearly Full Moon low in WNW. This morning, Venus is midway between Mercury and Saturn, 16° from each. Also, find the “Twins”, Pollux and Castor, 12°-16° upper right of Moon. Mercury gets brighter and easier to see daily, and climbs highest in morning twilight around Feb. 1.

Abrams Planetarium A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11.

Click image for a larger view. Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11.

During Jan. 23-Feb. 7 in morning sky, watch the waning Moon go east against the zodiacal backdrop, posing near Regulus on Jan. 25 and 26, near Jupiter on Jan. 27 and 28, and just 4° north of Spica on Jan. 30. Mercury comes within 10° lower left of Venus on Jan. 28, and 7.5° on Jan. 31, when Moon, just over half full, appears about 10° upper right of Mars.

In early February, the Moon continues eastward, passing four more planets, while Mercury and Venus draw closer to each other. On Feb. 1, Mars appears within 3° lower right of the Moon, now just past Last Quarter phase and just under half full. An hour before sunrise on Feb. 1, five bright planets, Mercury-Venus-Saturn-Mars-Jupiter, in order from ESE to WSW, span 115°.

Mercury appears within 7° lower left of Venus during all of February, but both sink lower in twilight as that month progresses. They appear within 5° of each other during Feb. 6-21, and appear closest to each other, 4.0° apart, on Feb. 13. This approach without passing is called a quasi-conjunction, because neither planet overtakes the other. (As seen from Earth, the planets never share the same “x-coordinate”, either right ascension or celestial longitude, this time around.)

On Feb. 3, Saturn appears 4° below the Moon. Antares appears 9° lower right of the lunar crescent and 8° lower right of Saturn.

On Feb. 5, Venus appears within 9° to Moon’s lower left.

On Feb. 6, look for Mercury within 5° lower left of Venus and 3° lower right of a thin crescent Moon, only 5 percent full and just over 2 days before New. This morning the five naked-eye planets span an angle of 120° across our sky, one-third of the way around the circle of the zodiac.

On the morning of Feb. 7, Spaceship Earth is carrying us toward the planet Mars. Our faster-moving home planet will overtake the red planet in late May. Watch about 40-45 minutes before sunrise this morning for a last, very thin old crescent Moon, about 2 percent full, just risen in the east-southeast, about 17° lower left of Venus and 13° lower left of Mercury. 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. Another occultation of Aldebaran will take place just before moonset on the night of Feb. 15-16, shortly after 1:00 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 16.


Illustrations of events mentioned above appear in Sky Calendar. A sample diagram showing the five naked-eye planets on morning of January 25 is included with this article. To subscribe, visit

January 2016 Morning Twilight Map

January 2016 Evening Twilight Map

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 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 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.