Carolyn Shoemaker Developed Tacit Knowledge of Presence of Comets and Asteroids

(p. B6) 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 foremost detector of comets and asteroids, died on Aug. 13 [2021] at a hospital in Flagstaff, Ariz.

. . .

In the afternoons, Dr. Shoemaker would take the film they had used the previous night and develop it in a darkroom, then turn over the negatives to Ms. Shoemaker. Using a stereoscope, she would compare exposures of the same block of sky at different times. If anything moved against the relatively fixed background of stars, it would appear to float in the viewing device’s eyepiece.

Ms. Shoemaker was charged with discerning what was the grain of the film (and perhaps dust on it) and what was an actual image of light emitted by an object hurtling through space. “With time,” she wrote, “I saw fainter and fainter objects.”

It took a few years before she found 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 at the time.

. . .

One comet, known as Shoemaker-Levy 9 (named in part for their associate David Levy), had stood out from the rest. Rather than making a lonely journey through the cosmic vacuum, Shoemaker-Levy 9 was on a collision course with Jupiter.

. . .

“Carolyn Shoemaker is one of the most revered and respected astronomers in history,” Jennifer Wiseman, a senior scientist overseeing the Hubble Space Telescope, said by phone. “Her discoveries, her tenacious care in how she did her work — those things have created a legacy and a reputation that has inspired people who have come into the field after her.”

. . .

. . . scientists still depend on methods that Ms. Shoemaker perfected.

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

For the full obituary, see:

Alex Traub. “Carolyn Shoemaker, 92, a Stargazer Who Spotted Comets and Asteroids.” The New York Times (Monday, September 6, 2021): B6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Sept. 4, 2021, and has the title “Carolyn Shoemaker, Hunter of Comets and Asteroids, Dies at 92.”)

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