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SOLAR WIND ENERGY SOURCE DISCOVERED: Using data from an aging NASA spacecraft, researchers have found signs of an energy source in the solar wind that has caught the attention of fusion researchers. NASA will be able to test the theory later this decade when it sends a new probe into the sun for a closer look. Get the full story from Science@NASA
COMET PAN-STARRS MOVES NORTH: On March 10th, Comet Pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4) makes its closest approach to the sun inside the orbit of Mercury. As the comet swings by the sun it is also crossing the celestial equator, moving from southern to northern skies. First sightings of the comet are now coming in from the northern hemisphere. Halda Mohammed sends this picture from Kulim, Kedah, Malaysia (latitude +5o N):
"After several days of comet hunting at dusk, on March 8th I finally caught a glimpse of my first comet ever - Comet PanSTARRS," says Mohammed. "Wonderful! I plan to try again tonight."
If the low clouds part, he'll probably see it again. Worldwide observers report that the comet is glowing about as brightly as a 2nd magnitude star, similar to the stars of the Big Dipper. Technically, that makes it a naked-eye object. The only problem is bright evening twilight, which competes with the glow of the comet. Look low and west after sunset; if you can't see the comet, try scanning the horizon with binoculars.
Dates of special interest include March 12th and 13th when the comet passes not far from the crescent Moon. The tight conjunction on the 12th provides a splendid opportunity for sunset photographers. Sky maps: March 12, March 13,
Visibility will improve next week as the comet moves away from the sun. When it is framed by darker skies, Pan-STARRS should become an easy target for naked eyes and small telescopes alike. Check the realtime comet gallery for the latest images.
More: NASA video, 3D orbit, ephemeris, light curves.
Realtime Comet Photo Gallery
NEW SUNSPOT: Last week, a farside sunspot hurled a massive CME toward Mars. Now that same sunspot is turning toward Earth. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory photographed it emerging over the sun's eastern limb on March 9th:
Since targeting Mars with a strong eruption on March 5th, the sunspot appears to have lost some of its potency. We shall see whether the active region still has an explosive magnetic field as it rotates around for better viewing in the days ahead. Solar flare alerts: text, voice.
Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery
Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery
Realtime Noctilucent Cloud Photo Gallery
[previous years: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011]