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SOLAR CYCLE UPDATE: Something unexpected is happening on the sun. 2013 is supposed to be the year of Solar Max, but solar activity is lower than expected. At least one leading forecaster expects the sun to rebound with a double-peaked maximum later this year. [video] [full story]
BRIGHT COMET PAN-STARRS: Comet Pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4) is inside the orbit of Mercury, brightening as it plunges toward the sun. Observers in the southern hemisphere say they can see Pan-STARRS with the unaided eye in the evening sunset sky. Michael White sends this view from Manawatu, New Zealand:
Photo details: Canon 50D, 140mm, f4.0, ISO1600, 3.2s exposure
"As Comet Pan-STARRS was setting on the southwestern horizon, its nucleus was visible to the naked eye and its tail could just be seen with averted vision," says White. "Crops in the foreground were illuminated by nearby highway lights."
Several important dates are approaching. On March 5th, Comet Pan-STARRS makes its closest approach to Earth (1.1 AU), followed on March 10th by its closest approach to the sun (0.3 AU). As Comet Pan-STARRS passes the sun, solar glare might make it difficult to see even as the nucleus vaporizes and brightens. By March 12th and 13th, the comet will reappear in the sunset skies of the northern hemisphere not far from the crescent Moon; think photo-op! Light curves suggest that the comet's brightness will peak near 2nd magnitude, similar to the stars of the Big Dipper. Check the realtime comet gallery for the latest images.
More about Comet Pan-STARRS: NASA video, 3D orbit, ephemeris, light curves.
Realtime Comet Photo Gallery
WEEKEND AURORAS: Throughout the weekend, a solar wind stream buffeted Earth's magnetic field, sparking Northern Lights around the Arctic Circle. Aurora tour guide Chad Blakley sends this report from Abisko National Park, Sweden: "Every dark night for the last five years I have gone out and patiently waited for the opportunity to see a once-in-a-lifetime aurora display. March 3rd was the night that it happened." Scroll past his photo of the apparition for the rest of the story:
"Our guests spent most of the evening photographing some very nice auroras," he continues. "Then, on the way back to the lodge the most amazing corona I have ever seen appeared and danced overhead for about five minutes. Some of our guests were in tears and others were overcome with laughter and joy. Tonight will be a night that I never forget!"
NOAA forecasters estimate a 40% chance of polar geomagnetic storms on March 4th as Earth exits the solar wind stream. Arctic sky watchers should remain alert for auroras. Aurora alerts: text, voice.
Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery
SDO ECLIPSE SEASON BEGINS: Twice every year, around the time of the equinoxes, Earth can pass directly between the Sun and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), producing a series of beautiful eclipses from the point of view of the spacecraft. SDO's vernal eclipse season began on Saturday, producing a partial blackout of the sun:
During the eclipse, which was centered around 0715 UT on March 3rd, Earth covered about half of the sun. Because these eclipses typically last for only minutes each day (maximum=72 minutes), there is still plenty of uninterrupted time for SDO to monitor activity on the sun. The ongoing eclipse season will end in approximately three weeks. Between now and then, stay tuned for some rare blackouts.
Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery
Realtime Noctilucent Cloud Photo Gallery
[previous years: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011]