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 now inside the orbit of Mercury, brightening as it plunges toward the sun. Observers in the southern hemisphere report say they can see Pan-STARRS with the unaided eye in the evening sunset sky. Carl Gruber photographed the comet on March 2nd over the city lights of Melbourne, Australia:

Photo details: Canon 50D, 140mm, f4.0, ISO1600, 3.2s exposure

“Despite bad light and smog pollution, the comet’s nucleus was clearly visible to the naked eye as well as a small part of the tail,” says Gruber. Light curves show the comet is approaching 2nd magnitude, about as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper.

Several important dates are approaching. On March 5th, Comet Pan-STARRS makes its closest approach to Earth (1.09 AU), followed on March 10th by its closest approach to the sun (0.3 AU). As Comet Pan-STARRS passes the sun, solar glare will 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! Check the realtime comet gallery for the latest images.

More about Comet Pan-STARRS: NASA video3D orbitephemerislight curves.