Remembering Carolyn Shoemaker (1929–2021)

Carolyn Shoemaker
Carolyn Shoemaker
Photo courtesy of Wendee Levy

More vital than its scientific worth, Carolyn Shoemaker believed {that a} long-term undertaking wasn’t price doing until it was enjoyable. 

Certainly, this highly effective thought held true for her longest and most bold undertaking, the Palomar Asteroid and Comet Survey — which led to her discoveries of a whole lot of asteroids and 32 comets, together with most spectacularly Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.  When that comet collided with Jupiter in the summertime of 1994, it marked probably the most astonishing collision within the solar system ever witnessed by people. It was fairly an accomplishment for Carolyn, who died on August thirteenth this year on the age of 92.

I had the nice privilege of figuring out Carolyn for greater than three a long time. In 1989, Carolyn invited me to affix her for a two-night observing run at Palomar Mountain’s oldest telescope, the 18-inch Schmidt digicam.  The instrument was the primary Schmidt digicam ever used within the United States, and my first night time with it was slightly troublesome, as I didn’t know a lot about how the digicam was speculated to function.  By the second night time, nonetheless, the observations had been shifting alongside fairly nicely.  “We may even run out of film,” Carolyn advised.  “We didn’t expect to be moving this efficiently.”

 When I introduced up the subsequent movie holder with its giant piece of Kodak 4416 hypersensitized movie, I instructed her that this might be the final movie. However, I added that I had introduced alongside some spare rolls of extraordinary 35-mm black-and-white movie.  I may lower them into items to type the round form of the big items of movie, I mentioned, then Scotch-tape them collectively to suit them into the big movie holder. 

How am I going to inform this enthusiastic particular person, Carolyn thought to herself, that his thought is silly and nugatory?

“David, it’s not going to work,” she mentioned.

Not fairly prepared to surrender on the joke, I added, “We simply take a gigantic pair of scissors, with a curve in them, to cut the strips of film.”

Carolyn regarded up for a second, then mentioned,  “David, I have the feeling that I’ve just been had.”

“That might just be because,”  I admitted, “you’ve just been had.” 

At that prompt, a protracted and shut friendship started that will stretch on for greater than 30 years.

A Latecomer to Astronomy

Carolyn Jean Spellmann was born on June  24, 1929, in Gallup, New Mexico. She grew up in Chico, California, and attended what’s now California State University, Chico. She had little interest in science and certainly discovered her geology course boring and irritating. 

After her brother Richard graduated from Caltech in 1948, Carolyn’s mom tried to behave as matchmaker for her and Richard’s roommate, a younger geologist named Gene Shoemaker.  Carolyn resisted this effort, and did once more when Gene served as finest man at Richard’s marriage ceremony two years later.  Richard needed to bribe her to spend time with Gene on the marriage ceremony by providing to provide her a tablecloth from Guatemala.  

The bribe paid off: Richard’s marriage ceremony led to numerous dates between Carolyn and Gene, together with tenting and geological discipline journeys, and in the end a 1951 marriage ceremony. On a discipline journey with Gene throughout the summer season of 1952, simply after their marriage, Gene gave Carolyn a brand new expertise with geology. Carolyn was enthralled by how Gene introduced geology to life.  Gene was enthusiastic about Earth as a world, with its lengthy and exquisite historical past rigorously written in pages of rock.  “It was a great way to get to know each other,” Carolyn recalled of that summer season.  She added that she thought that the most effective way to get to know one other particular person is to go tenting or observing with them. I’d be taught to understand this knowledge throughout our years of observing collectively.

Carolyn started her married life as a faculty trainer, however she discovered that career tedious.  While her husband skilled astronauts to conduct geology experiments throughout their discipline journeys on the Moon, Carolyn raised the couple’s three kids Christy, Linda, and Pat.

As the kids grew older, Carolyn was left with an unsure future.  Gene advised that she be part of his new program to go looking asteroids that would pose a menace to Earth.  Besides the 18-inch Schmidt telescope, their instrument of selection was a stereomicroscope by means of which Carolyn may view two items of movie on the similar time.  With each exposures recording an identical elements of the sky, her eyes would apparently see only one picture.  But if an object had been to maneuver within the sky between one publicity and the subsequent, it will seem to “float” atop the background of stars.  Carolyn shortly grew to become an knowledgeable at discovering shifting asteroids and shortly started to find asteroids on her personal.

In October 1983, Carolyn found her first comet.  She contacted Brian Marsden, then director of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams.  Brian rigorously walked her by means of the method, recording the invention positions.  Then he requested Carolyn what the magnitude of the comet was. 

“I have no idea!” Carolyn mentioned tensely. 

Brian’s response:  “I don’t care; say something!”    

Thus, IAU Circular 3863, issued on September 14, 1983, announced the discovery of 16th-magnitude Comet Shoemaker.

In the following years Carolyn found comet after comet, and by the time I began observing with her and Gene, she had discovered 17.  In 1990, after more than a year of our observing together, periodic comet Shoemaker-Levy 1 turned up. Seven more came in 1991. There were not so many in 1992 or 1993, though one discovery made up for all that: Shoemaker-Levy 9.

Shoemaker Levy 9
The discovery photos of Shoemaker-Levy 9, which David Levy took on March 23, 1993. The following year, the comet broke aside and impacted Jupiter.
Shoemaker-Levy 9 in fragments
The Hubble Space Telescope noticed 21 icy fragments of what was Shoemaker-Levy 9, stretched throughout 1.1 million km (710 thousand miles), or 3 occasions the space between Earth and the Moon. This picture was taken in May 1994; the fragments hit Jupiter in July.
NASA / ESA / H. Weaver and E. Smith (STScI)

Carolyn’s onerous work introduced a number of accolades. She and Gene shared each the Rittenhouse Medal in 1988 and the Scientists of the Year Award in 1995. In 1990 she acquired an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, and the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal got here in 1996.

There had been additionally some sad occasions in Carolyn’s lengthy life, significantly after Gene died in a automotive accident in Australia in 1997.  Carolyn survived the accident with extreme accidents, however she by no means actually recovered from the lack of her husband.  At one level, she confided to me that she wished she had died with him.

The complete observing expertise, whether or not Carolyn discovered something or not, was the actual pleasure of the numerous years Carolyn spent underneath the stars, whether or not with Gene at Palomar or, later, with Wendee and me in southern Arizona. 

On a kind of nights, I stepped out to test the situation of the sky and noticed 4 auroral rays climbing from the northern horizon.  At Palomar’s latitude of 33.3° north, seeing any aurorae in any respect is a particularly uncommon deal with.  I rushed in and knowledgeable Carolyn.  She halted our observing and insisted that Gene be part of us exterior to benefit from the wondrous view of the northern lights.  For Carolyn, the shimmering rays reminded us of why she beloved the night time sky and the majesty of looking out it at one of many world’s nice observatories.  

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