Shoemaker, Carolyn (1929—)

views updated

Shoemaker, Carolyn (1929—)

American astronomer. Born on June 24, 1929, in Gallup, New Mexico; Chico State College in California, B.A., M.A.; Northern Arizona University, Ph.D., 1990; married Eugene Shoemaker (1928–1997, a geologist and astronomer), on August 18, 1951; children: three.

With her husband and David Levy, discovered the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet (1993); holds the world record for number of comets—32—discovered by a living astronomer (as of 2001).

Astronomer Carolyn Shoemaker, who has discovered over 800 asteroids and 32 comets—more than any living astronomer, and only 5 fewer than the all-time record set in the 19th century—did not even begin working as an astronomer until middle age. Born in 1929, she married Eugene Shoemaker, a geologist and astronomer, in 1951, and left her job as a teacher the following year to raise their family. While Eugene worked with the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) and NASA and pioneered the field of planetary science, Carolyn raised their three children. When the children were grown, she joined him as a unpaid partner in tracking comets for his work as head of the astrogeology department of the USGS. In 1980, she became a visiting scientist there. The pair averaged three discoveries a year, with Carolyn making additional discoveries that made her the world record-holder for comet finds. (Eugene discovered 29.) Her self-taught skill at scanning telescopic photographs of the night sky is credited with her high number of comet discoveries.

In 1993 the Shoemakers, together with astronomer-writer David Levy, discovered the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, one of the most celebrated comet discoveries of the 20th century. The comet was actually a string of at least 21 pieces on a collision course with the planet Jupiter. The resulting impact in 1994 released a force equal to 10,000 times the energy stored in the Earth's Cold War stash of nuclear weapons, creating fiery holes in Jupiter's atmosphere equal to the size of Texas in a six-day barrage of mammoth shock waves and vast clouds of debris. The spectacular celestial phenomenon was the first that scientists had the opportunity to observe in this solar system. On the basis of this and other finds, Shoemaker was awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1996.

On July 18, 1997, Shoemaker and her husband were conducting research on impact crater geology in Alice Springs, Australia, when an automobile accident killed Eugene and critically injured Carolyn. After hearing that his remains would be cremated, a former graduate student of Eugene's, planetary scientist Carolyn C. Porco , suggested fulfilling his desire to travel to the moon by sending his ashes there. Shoemaker was touched, and NASA embraced the idea wholeheartedly. In 1998, she watched as his ashes, contained in a capsule etched with a photograph of the Hale-Bopp Comet and a quotation from Romeo and Juliet, in honor of their love for each other, were launched to the moon on the Lunar Prospector.

Since 1989 a research professor of astronomy at Northern Arizona University, which granted her a doctorate in 1990, Shoemaker also serves on the staff of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her remarkable achievements in astronomy led to her being named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Levy, David H. "Comet Hunters, Night Watchmen of the Heavens," in Smithsonian. Vol. 23, no. 3. June 1992.

——. Shoemaker by Levy: The Man Who Made an Impact. NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

"Out of this World," in People Weekly. July 18, 1994.

Time. May 23, 1994, p. 57.

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City