May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Jupiter, Saturn and More – Arrange a Sky-watch for Your Class!

Posted: Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

by Robert Victor and Robert D. Miller

May 2014 is an excellent month for teachers to offer sky-watching sessions for their students. For most of the month, as many as four naked-eye planets and a large number of bright stars will be visible simultaneously during evening twilight. The Moon will be visible daily at dusk for two weeks, as it makes its way from a thin crescent low in WNW on April 30 to a Full Moon rising in ESE shortly after sunset on May 14. Beginning on April 30, students and teachers are encouraged to watch the Moon pass the planets and five bright stars of the zodiac, and identify them by using the daily calendar illustrations or the monthly sky chart.

The circular all-sky chart (Planets and Bright Stars in Evening Mid-Twilight and Planets and Bright Stars in Morning Mid-Twilight) depicts the sky on May 15 about 1.5 hours after sunset from southern California, and 1.2 hours after sunset from the northern border of the state. For these maps for northern California stargazers, click here.

A Plethora of Planets

The four planets, in order from the west-northwest horizon to the east-southeast, are Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Jupiter and Mars rank first and third in brightness among all star-like objects visible in May’s evening sky. Extend a line from Jupiter toward Mars and beyond, to the lower left of Mars, to find Saturn. Extend the line in the other direction, from Mars to Jupiter and beyond, to find Mercury near the WNW horizon in twilight during May. The near-alignment of the four planets in May’s evening sky is not a coincidence! It occurs because the orbits of the planets are nearly coplanar. Other bright objects are found far off that line, for example, Sirius, the brightest star (ranking second, after only Jupiter in May’s evening sky), is well south of the plane of the solar system. Some other bright stars, including Arcturus, Vega, and Capella, are all well to the north of the solar system’s plane. The first magnitude zodiacal stars Aldebaran in Taurus, Pollux in Gemini, Regulus in Leo, Spica in Virgo, and Antares in Scorpius all lie within a few degrees of the ecliptic (Earth’s orbit plane), so the Moon and planets (and the Sun) appear to pass by them regularly.



The Showpiece Planets

Jupiter and Saturn, when visible, are wonderful showpieces for telescopic viewing: Jupiter with its dark cloud belts and as many as all four of the satellites discovered by Galileo; and Saturn with its rings and largest satellite Titan. In 2010-2011, Jupiter and Saturn were in nearly opposite directions from Earth and seldom visible simultaneously. Now in May and early June 2014, we see the two giant planets about 120 degrees apart, and we can get excellent telescopic views at a convenient early hour of evening. Jupiter appears in Gemini, not far from the “Twin” stars Pollux and Castor. Saturn appears in Libra, near two third-magnitude stars whose names mean “southern claw” and “northern claw” of the Scorpion. The first-magnitude star Antares, marking the heart of Scorpius, rises to the lower left of Saturn.

In coming years…

Jupiter takes almost 12 years to make one trip around the Sun, compared to Saturn’s requiring nearly 30 years. So each year, on average, Jupiter moves about 30 degrees east, compared to Saturn’s 12 degrees. Consequently, Jupiter gains about 18 degrees per year on Saturn, and about every 20 years, Jupiter appears to overtake Saturn. The last time that happened was at their close pairing low in morning twilight on May 28, 2000. In late May 2014, Saturn appears about 120 degrees east (ahead) of Jupiter in the evening sky. Jupiter is gaining, and on the evening of December 21, 2020 a very special event will take place – Jupiter and Saturn will appear only 0.1 degree apart, their closest conjunction since 1623, the year Galileo’s The Assayer was published.

As a multi-year project, students will enjoy following Jupiter closing in on Saturn until December 2020. This year, they can both be very well seen in the early evening from early May until early June. At the start of this 5-week “window”, Saturn is low in the SE; at the end, Jupiter is sinking low into WNW.

In 2015, the window for good viewing of both Jupiter and Saturn in early evening will begin about two weeks later in May, and last until early July, a month later than this year.

In 2016 and 2017, prime time for viewing both Jupiter and Saturn in an early evening session will shift out of the traditional school year into the summer months: In 2016, from late May until late July; and in 2017, from early June to late August.

By 2018, the window for catching both giants in early evening will broaden to over three months long, from late June until late September, including the start of the school year.

In 2019, Jupiter and Saturn will be seen together in the early evening, some 30° to 20° apart, from early July until nearly the middle of November.

In 2020, the giants will be seen no more than a few degrees apart in the early evening sky from mid-July until late December, almost the entire latter half of the year. The entire autumn season will be especially dramatic, as Jupiter closes in on Saturn for their tightest pairing in nearly four centuries!

So, take advantage of the May-June 2014 opportunity, during this school year, to catch telescopic views of the two showpiece planets, Jupiter and Saturn, at a convenient hour of early evening.

Wishing you clear, dark skies! (Remember to arrange access to a darkened part of your school grounds.) Here are some highlights, week-by-week. See Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar for illustrations of Moon near planets and bright stars.

Week of May 5-9: Best evenings for using binoculars and telescopes to view surface features on the Moon.

Week of May 12-16: The Full Moon rises just after sunset on May 14. The Moon rises just over an hour after sunset on May 15, brightening the sky before twilight ends. Moon rises over two hours after sunset on May 16, allowing a brief interval of very dark skies!

Week of May 19-22: Best week for Mercury, and for four bright planets simultaneously. With no Moon, the latter part of each session, after twilight ends, will be dark!

You may not want to schedule a session for Friday evening, May 23, the start of the Memorial Day weekend. Instead, suggest students and their families arrange to be in a dark place to watch for a possible strong meteor shower that night, especially between 11:30 p.m. PDT Friday and 1:00 a.m. PDT on Saturday. Remind the students to get up and out early on Sunday morning, May 25, to enjoy the close pairing of Venus and the old crescent Moon, best about one hour before sunrise.

Week of May 27-30: Sky is still dark and moonless at end of evening twilight. This week, Mercury begins its sharp fade. On evening of Friday, May 30, look for the innermost planet to the right of young crescent Moon very low in WNW, and far to lower right of Jupiter. Remind the students to look on the evenings of Sat. May 31 and Sun. June 1 to see the waxing crescent Moon near Jupiter.

Week of June 2-6: Another good set of dates for viewing Moon with binoculars and telescopes for surface details. Moon near Regulus, the heart of Leo, on June 3 and 4, and passes First Quarter phase, ideal for observation, on Thurs. June 5. On the weekend, the waxing gibbous Moon appears near Mars on Sat. June 7, and near Spica on Sun. June 8.

Week of June 9-13: Moon strongly brightens the evening sky this week, but if you’re observing during twilight, bright moonlight doesn’t matter. Mercury’s gone, but you can still see three planets at dusk: Saturn in SSE, near fat gibbous Moon on June 9 and 10, Jupiter low in WNW, and Mars nearly on a line from Jupiter toward Saturn, over two-thirds of the way toward Saturn. The Moon passes widely north of Antares, heart of Scorpius, on the evening of June 11, and is Full the next evening, Thursday, June 12.

After that, the next bright planet the Moon will encounter will be Venus, in a spectacular close pairing at dawn on Tuesday, June 24.

Related resources, available here.

Monthly evening and morning twilight charts, depicting only stars of first magnitude or brighter, and the five naked-eye planets.

Daily observation log sheet for recording sightings of bright stars and planets; may be especially helpful from mid-April until June for encouraging students to follow the seasonal disappearance of stars in the western sky at dusk.

Orbit charts of the inner four planets (out to Mars) and inner six (out to Saturn), with data tables for plotting the positions of the planets in their orbits. It might be fun to plot the current positions of the planets, paste the orbit charts onto a stiff piece of cardboard, and then, at an outdoor observing session, hold the chart so that its orientation matches the orientation of the actual solar system in the sky. Mounting the chart on the panhead of an adjustable tripod would work well for getting the orientations to match. Once the planets are plotted for the current date and the chart is oriented correctly, a line from the plotted Earth to each plotted planet should point to the actual planet in the sky!

Robert D. Miller 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.