Carolyn Shoemaker didn’t begin her astronomical career until the age of 51, when her children were grown. She had spent a brief period as a school teacher, but was unhappy with the environment and made the decision to be a wife and mother while her husband, planetary scientist, Gene Shoemaker traveled for his work. After their children moved away from home Carolyn was searching for a way to spend her time and Gene was looking for help in his lab and their professional collaboration began. In 1980 she started as his field assistant where she was searching the sky for Earth crossing asteroids and comets, she continued her work becoming an astronomy research professor at Northern Arizona University nine years later.
Shoemaker was also responsible for the development of more efficient techniques for scanning films taken with the Palomar Observatory’s Schmidt Camera. By using these techniques it was possible to make a more than two-fold increase in the rate of sky coverage. Reading and analyzing the films from the camera is not an easy process but it is what makes the discoveries of comets and asteroids possible.
On a fateful night in 1993 the Shoemakers were working at the Palomar Observatory in southern California when they photographed the evidence of a fractured comet orbiting the planet Jupiter. This comet, later designated Shoemaker-Levy 9, had already been broken apart into twenty-one pieces of debris that were on a collision course with the gas giant. For six days in 1994 the three astronomers, along with much of the world, watched the gravity of the largest planet in our solar system pull the fragments into itself in a dazzling display of rock and ice crashing into the clouds of the upper atmosphere of the planet.
Carolyn Shoemaker has discovered over 800 asteroids and to date she has discovered the most comets of any living person and only needs a few more to beat the record for discovering the most comets of all time. She continues to work with Levy at the Lowell Observatory searching the night sky.
Written by Angela Goad