Astronomers are getting a close-up view of the death throes of a comet as it passes Earth and enters the inner solar system.
Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 has broken into more than 40 fragments as it speeds toward a swing around the sun on June 6, NASA officials said Thursday.
The main fragment will come closest to Earth on May 12, when it will be visible to ground observers.
None of the comet’s pieces will come close to hitting Earth, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said. The closest fragment will pass at a distance of 5.5 million miles – more than 20 times the distance from Earth to the moon.
It will still be the closest that any comet has come to Earth in two decades. But because it is not a large comet – its largest fragment is thought to be anywhere from 1 to 3 miles across – observers will need binoculars to see it as it passes through the constellations Pegasus and Cygnus from May 12-14.