Comet and asteroid hunter Carolyn Shoemaker dies at 92

Carolyn Shoemaker, who for more than a decade managed a telescopic camera with her husband from a high altitude observatory in California and became widely regarded, without academic training, as the world’s first comet and asteroid detector, is died Aug. 13 at a hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona. She was 92 years old.

His daughter Linda Salazar, who confirmed the death, said her health deteriorated after falling a week earlier.

Ms Shoemaker’s career as a professional stargazer began around the age of 50, after Ms Salazar, her youngest child, left for college. To fill the gap, Ms. Shoemaker sought out a “strong and compelling interest,” she wrote in an autobiographical essay.

Although she feels nervous about scientific instruments as simple as a calculator, she has offered to help her husband, revered planetary geologist Eugene Shoemaker, with a project to collect data on comets and asteroids.

Dr Shoemaker believed that comet collisions with Earth were responsible for transporting water and other elements necessary for life to the planet, meaning that humans “can really be made of comet ‘stuff’. Ms. Shoemaker wrote in her essay. Dr Shoemaker was also concerned that a comet hitting Earth could threaten human civilization. Yet relatively little scientific attention had been paid to the frequency and effects of cometary collisions with planets.

At the start of the dark phase of the lunar cycle, making it easier to see faint objects in space, shoemakers traveled to an observatory on Palomar Mountain, near San Diego. To locate previously unknown comets and asteroids, they aimed to photograph the night sky as much as possible. Birdsong signaled bedtime.

In the afternoon, Dr. Shoemaker would take the film they had used the night before and develop it in a darkroom, then give the negatives to Ms. Shoemaker. Using a stereoscope, she compared the exposures of the same block of sky at different times. If something moved against the relatively fixed background of the stars, it would appear to be floating in the eyepiece of the viewing device.

Ms. Shoemaker was tasked with discerning what the grain of the film was (and possibly dust on it) and what was an actual image of light emitted by an object rushing through space. “Over time,” she wrote, “I saw increasingly faint objects.”

It took her a few years to find her first new comet, in 1983. By 1994, she had discovered, in addition to hundreds of asteroids, 32 comets, a number considered by the United States Geological Survey and others to represent the world record on time.

That year was also the occasion of such an exceptional discovery that it inspired what was probably the only time in her life when Mrs. Shoemaker drank champagne straight from the bottle.

A comet, known as Shoemaker-Levy 9 (named after their associate David Levy), stood out from the rest. Rather than take a solitary journey through the cosmic void, Shoemaker-Levy 9 was on a collision course with Jupiter. By detecting the comet shortly before impact, Ms Shoemaker gave scientists the opportunity to examine whether or not comets crashing into planets represented major astronomical events – and to test hypotheses from her work. husband.

The result had all the drama the shoemakers could have imagined: swirling fireballs, a plume of hot gas as high as 360 Mount Everests, and a series of massive injuries that appeared in Jupiter’s atmosphere. . Hobbyist astronomers could see much of it with store-bought telescopes.

The anticipation of Shoemaker-Levy 9 and the spectacular spectacle it produced made the front pages of the New York Times and the cover of Time magazine, which called the Shoemakers “a husband-and-wife science duo who spends their evenings scrutinizing. the sky in search of paradise. intruders. ”The couple and Mr. Levy were featured in a Person of the Week segment on the nighttime ABC News show and met with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

“It definitely showed that comet impact could play a role in shaping the solar system,” Priyamvada Natarajan, professor of astronomy at Yale, said in a telephone interview. “It is a key part of the puzzle of the origins of chemical compounds and of life.”

The event also demonstrated the value of Ms. Shoemaker’s expertise in detecting comets.

“Carolyn Shoemaker is one of the most revered and respected astronomers in history,” Jennifer Wiseman, senior scientist overseeing the Hubble Space Telescope, said by phone. “Her discoveries, her tenacious care in the way she worked – these things created a legacy and a reputation that inspired the people who came to the field after her.”

Carolyn Jean Spellmann was born June 24, 1929 in Gallup, New Mexico. She grew up in Chico, California, where her father, Leonard, and mother, Hazel (Arthur) Spellmann, operated a chicken farm.

She received an MA in History and Political Science from Chico State University (now known as California State University, Chico). She met Eugene Shoemaker at her brother’s wedding, where Dr Shoemaker, her brother’s former roommate at college, was a witness. They married in 1951, a year later.

Ms Shoemaker briefly worked as a teacher after college, but by the time she got married she had quit working. She accompanied her husband on field trips, prepared meals for him and his colleagues, and raised the family’s three children.

Today, professional astronomers use remote-controlled telescopes and digital detection software. They tend not to spend sleepless nights in remote mountainous areas, guiding telescopes across the night sky and developing films in their own darkrooms, as shoemakers did. Yet scientists still depend on the methods Ms. Shoemaker perfected.

“She and her colleagues set the stage to identify what we would call minor bodies in our solar system, such as comets and asteroids,” said Dr Wiseman. “We still use the technique of looking for the relatively fast transverse motions of comets and asteroids in our own solar system, relative to the slower or more fixed position of the stars.”

In addition to Ms. Salazar, Ms. Shoemaker is survived by another daughter, Christine Abanto; one son, Patrick; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

In 1997, she and Dr Shoemaker were on a trip to Australia to investigate craters when, driving on a remote backcountry road, they took a turn and collided with an oncoming car. Ms. Shoemaker tore her rotator cuff and broke her rib and wrist. Dr Shoemaker died instantly.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Shoemaker devoted herself to completing the research they had started.

“Without Gene, I would never have known the excitement of planetary science,” she writes in her autobiographical essay. “Without me,” he often said, “his search for asteroids and comets, and then the work of creating Australian craters, would never have been attempted. Together we could do more than each of us alone.

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