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Carolyn S. Shoemaker, an astronomer in love with the sky

Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker at the Palomar Observatory
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker at the Palomar Observatory
  • Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker at the Palomar Observatory
  • 21 fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 photographed by the Hubble telescope on May 17, 1994.
Carolyn S. Shoemaker, an astronomer in love with the sky

I’d like to take advantage of this blog entry to pay tribute to a great lady of astronomy, Carolyn S. Shoemaker, who left us in August 2021. Even though her astronomy career didn’t get started until late, this did not prevent her from discovering close to 900 asteroids and 32 comets, including the famous Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

Carolyn Spellmann was born on June 24, 1929, in the city of Gallup, New Mexico; her father raised chickens and her mother taught school. In her early years, Carolyn had no interest in astronomy or for science in general. She earned a degree in history and political science from California State University, Chico, and started a career as a primary-school teacher, which as it happened she did not find very stimulating.

A decisive encounter

At the marriage of her brother, Richard, in 1950, Carolyn met Eugene Shoemaker, the groom’s best man. Richard and had been roommates at university. It was love at first sight for Carolyn and Eugene, and the couple got married in the summer of 1951.

Carolyn gave up her teaching career to devote herself to raising their three children. During this time, Eugene was enjoying a prolific career in geology; he would even train future Apollo mission astronauts in that discipline.

Eugene’s passion for geology lit the spark of science in Carolyn. Her great patience and her meticulousness would prove to be major assets in her future career in astronomy.

The start of a great career in astronomy

Her children having grown up and left home, Carolyn, at the age of 51, began to assist Eugene in his work at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California. Shoemaker got interested in Earth-crossing asteroids and the danger of collision these objects represented for our planet – a subject that scientists of the time gave little consideration to.

Carolyn tracked near-Earth asteroids and comets on photographic plates: slow and methodical work demanding considerable patience, but which she found exciting. The possibility of discovering new celestial objects was especially stimulating, and led to her developing a passion for comets.

Collision with Jupiter

The Shoemaker couple became famous in 1993. Helped by amateur Québec astronomer David Levy and France’s Philippe Bendjoya, Carolyn discovered a strange comet on one of her photographic plates. That comet, named Shoemaker-Levy 9, was in orbit around the planet Jupiter and was composed of a string of 21 ice and rock fragments. Those fragments disintegrated in the giant planet’s atmosphere in July 1994, serving up as it did so a fireworks display never seen before by astronomers.

Scientists at that point became aware of the danger represented by this type of collision. Since that day, a number of projects have been set up to inventory and track near-Earth objects that may threaten our planet.

A dreadful accident

Starting in 1985, the Shoemakers spent three months a year in Australia to study the impact craters found all over the country. Sadly, in July 1997, their car was involved in a serious accident. Eugene died on the spot, and Carolyn was badly injured.

After a convalescence lasting more than a year, she resumed her work and finished projects left hanging by Eugene. She retired from astronomy in 2002.

Carolyn S. Shoemaker received numerous awards during her career, including the Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal from NASA, as well as the James Craig Watson Medal presented to her and her husband by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences for their contribution to astronomy. The asteroid 4446 Carolyn was named in her honor.

On August 13, 2021, Carolyn S. Shoemaker left to join her husband, Eugene, among the stars.

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