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Carolyn Shoemaker

        Science | Astronomers

Shoemaker, Carolyn (1929-) is an American astronomer. She has discovered more comets than any other living astronomer.

Shoemaker was born Carolyn Spellman on June 24, 1929, in Gallup, New Mexico. She received a B.A. degree in 1949 and an M.A. degree in 1950, both from Chico State College (now California State University, Chico) in California. She then worked as a schoolteacher.

In 1951, she married Eugene Merle Shoemaker, a geologist. They had three children.

In 1980, Carolyn Shoemaker became a visiting scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. During the 1980's, she also began working with her husband at the Palomar Observatory in California. Together they searched for comets in photographs taken by powerful telescopes. Carolyn Shoemaker discovered her first comet in 1983. She took on the additional position of research professor of astronomy at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in 1989. In 1993, she also became a staff member at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

In March 1993, at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, the Shoemakers and the astronomer David H. Levy together discovered a comet that had been pulled by gravity into orbit around Jupiter and broken into 21 fragments. The fragments of this comet, which became known as Shoemaker-Levy 9, crashed into Jupiter's atmosphere in July 1994. The impacts caused huge explosions that scattered debris over large areas. Scientists studied the event to learn about the effects of a collision between a planet and a comet.

In 1996, Shoemaker won the Exceptional Scientific Achievement medal from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). By 2001, she had discovered 32 comets and with her husband, more than 800 asteroids.