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Carolyn Shoemaker (1929–2021), astronomer who discovered many comets

by Linnea Crowther

Carolyn Shoemaker was an astronomer who co-discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 and set a record for comets discovered.

Self-taught astronomer

Shoemaker didn’t have scientific training, but she learned her work by working side by side with her husband, Eugene Shoemaker, a planetary geologist. The two used telescopes to scan and photograph the night sky, then Shoemaker worked with those photographs to identify comets, asteroids, and other minor bodies in space. She set a record for the most comets discovered, having identified 32 by 1994. Among her discoveries was Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with Jupiter a year after her 1993 identification of the comet. Her discovery helped her husband and other scientists track the comet’s progress and gather useful information about the impact of a comet strike on a planet.

Notable quote

“Without Gene, I would never have known the excitement of planetary science. Without me, he often said, his search for asteroids and comets and then the Australian cratering work would never have been attempted. Together, we could do more than either of us alone.” —from Shoemaker’s autobiographical essay

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Tributes to Carolyn Shoemaker

Full obituary: The New York Times

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