All About Space

Dr Carolyn Shoemaker

A trailblazi­ng and highly observant astronomer, Shoemaker was the ultimate comet hunter


Shoemaker was a truly remarkable astronomer, having discovered over 800 asteroids and at least 32 comets. What makes Shoemaker’s achievemen­ts even more extraordin­ary is that they were accomplish­ed by a woman who took up astronomy in 1980, at the age of 51.

Shoemaker was born in 1929 in Gallup, New Mexico, and her family then moved to California. But the would-be world-renowned astronomer didn’t show any interest in astronomy at school. Instead she decided to study history and political science at Chico State University, now known as California State University, Chico.

After college, Shoemaker found herself working as a teacher, a career choice she wasn’t too enthused about. Then, at her brother’s wedding, she met geologist Gene Shoemaker, who was her brother’s roommate at the

California Institute of Technology (Caltech). This chance encounter would be the start of a long and fruitful relationsh­ip, and the beginning of Carolyn’s path into astronomy. The Shoemakers married and built a house in Flagstaff, Arizona, where they raised three children, and Gene establishe­d the US Geological Survey (USGS) Astrogeolo­gy Science Center.

Once their children had grown up, Carolyn found herself looking for something to avoid ‘empty-nest syndrome’. At this time, Gene had been developing a program to find close Earth-approachin­g asteroids and calculate the probabilit­y of an impact with Earth. In need of an extra pair of hands – or in this case eyes – Gene asked Carolyn if she would like to help him look for such objects.

Carolyn accepted Gene’s offer, taking up a position as a visiting scientist with the astrogeolo­gy branch at the USGS. At the age of 51, while most people are thinking about ‘slowing down’, Carolyn’s astronomic­al career was only just getting started. Carolyn quickly picked up new techniques, and soon became comfortabl­e with the stereoscop­e – a piece of equipment that allows for one eye to look at one target and the other at a separate object. Carolyn would carefully examine photograph­ic plates using a stereoscop­e to view two at a time to identify whether anything ‘out of the ordinary’ was visible, something that might indicate a possible interplane­tary body such as an asteroid or comet. It would take about 13 hours per night to collect images of the night sky, and then countless more hours painstakin­gly studying them for the slightest change.

Despite the gruelling hours, this work really suited Carolyn and her attention to detail, which she put down to her gender and parental responsibi­lities: “Motherhood teaches patience for detail and that women tend to look at the finer details more than men.”

At her peak, Carolyn’s impressive discovery rate was about 100 search hours per comet find. By 1989 Carolyn was a research professor of astronomy at Northern Arizona University, and in 1993 Carolyn and her husband Gene, along with coworker David Levy, rose to fame with the discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. The comet had a dramatic demise in 1994 when it bombarded Jupiter with the force of 300 million atomic bombs.

Carolyn’s many achievemen­ts did not go unrecognis­ed; in 1988 she and Gene received the Rittenhous­e Medal. In 1990 she received an honorary doctorate of science from Northern Arizona University, and was presented with the NASA Exceptiona­l Scientific Achievemen­t Medal in 1996. Carolyn’s career would likely not have taken this dramatic turn if it had not been for her supportive husband Gene. In turn, Gene might not have progressed very far with his asteroid statistics program and co-discovered Shoemaker-Levy 9 if it had not been for his wife Carolyn. They were the ultimate team.

 ??  ?? Carolyn and her husband recieved the Rittenhous­e Medal
Carolyn and her husband recieved the Rittenhous­e Medal

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom