This could be the last chance to see Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3—named after the 2 German astronomers who discovered it in 1930—as its disintegration is now accelerating. The comet began to break apart in 1995, when it splintered into 3 pieces under the effects of the Sun’s heat. Since then, it has continued to break up into more than 40 fragments.
In the early hours of 12 May, you should be able to view the main fragments of the comet through binoculars in the Cygnus constellation, which is easily recognizable in the shape of a large cross.
Fragment C is likely to be the brightest. The inset shows a picture of what the sky will look like on 12 May at around 4:00 a.m., above the horizon to the east.
The light of the almost full Moon will not make viewing easy, since it will not set until a few minutes before the 1st light of dawn, around 5:30 a.m.
Credits: Société d'Astronomie Populaire de Toulouse
Their research could have far-reaching implications, because comets are the best-preserved remnants of the primitive nebula, the cloud of gas and dust that gave birth to our Solar System.
Once there, it will release the Philae lander onto the comet’s surface to unlock its inner secrets.
France is a major contributor to the Rosetta mission initiated by the European Space Agency, notably supplying the CIVA imaging system and the Consert sounding radar. Many French scientists also worked on other Rosetta instruments and will be exploiting data collected.