Carolyn S. Shoemaker


Carolyn S. Shoemaker
Carolyn Shoemaker (cropped).jpg
Carolyn Jean Spellmann

(1929-06-24)June 24, 1929
DiedAugust 13, 2021(2021-08-13) (aged 92)
Alma materCalifornia State University, Chico
Known forco-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9
(m. 1951; died 1997)
AwardsJames Craig Watson Medal (1998)
NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal (1996)
Rittenhouse Medal (1988)
Scientific career
InstitutionsCalifornia Institute of Technology
Palomar Observatory, California

Carolyn Jean Spellmann Shoemaker (June 24, 1929 – August 13, 2021) was an American astronomer and a co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9.[1] She discovered 32 comets (then a record for the most by an individual)[2] and more than 500 asteroids.[3]

Having earned degrees in history, political science, and English literature, she had little interest in science until she met and married geologist Eugene Shoemaker. Her career in astronomy began when she demonstrated good stereoscopic vision, a particularly valuable quality for looking for objects in near-Earth space. Despite the fact that her degrees were not in science, having that visual ability motivated the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to hire her as a research assistant on a team led by her husband.[2] She went on to making record-setting discoveries in the field of astronomy, as well as being awarded honorary degrees and many profession awards.

Personal life

Shoemaker was born on June 24, 1929, in Gallup, New Mexico, United States, to Hazel Arthur and Leonard Spellmann.[4][2] Her family then moved to Chico, California, where she and her brother Richard grew up. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in history, political science, and English literature from Chico State University.[5]

When her brother attended Caltech, his roommate was a young graduate student named Gene Shoemaker, however, Carolyn did not meet him until the summer of 1950 at her brother's wedding.[2] Following graduation, Shoemaker had moved to New Jersey to begin work toward his doctoral degree at Princeton University. He had flown back to California to serve as Richard's best man. When Shoemaker returned to his studies at Princeton, Carolyn and he maintained a "pen pal" relationship and they both then attended a two-week camping trip on the Tennessee Plateau. They were married on August 18, 1951.[2][6] They had three children: Christy, Linda, and Patrick (Pat).[2]

The Shoemaker family lived in Grand Junction, Colorado, Menlo Park, California, and Pasadena, California, before settling down in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she and her husband worked together at the Lowell Observatory.[6] In 1997, Carolyn and Gene were involved in a car crash in Australia. Gene was killed instantly, while Carolyn sustained severe injuries.[7]

Shoemaker died at age 92, after a fall on August 13, 2021.[8][9]


Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, where Carolyn and Gene Shoemaker recorded many of their astronomical discoveries

Shortly after her marriage, the first job she held was teaching the seventh grade.[3] Unsatisfied with the teaching profession, she quit to raise a family.[3] Mary Chapman, author of Shoemaker's biography for the USGS Astrogeology Center, wrote "Carolyn is a warm, caring, and extremely patient woman, but her skills were better suited for a non-teaching environment."[2] After her children had grown up and moved out, Shoemaker sought work.[3] In her youth, she had never been interested in scientific topics.[2] She had taken one course in geology, but found it extremely boring.[2] However, she reportedly told others that, "listening to Gene explaining geology made what she had thought was a boring subject into an exciting and interesting pursuit of knowledge".[2]

Clark Dome at Lowell Observatory
Shoemaker in 1986

At the suggestion of her husband, she began studying astronomy from a student at Lowell Observatory.[5] Then she began working as a field assistant for her husband. She worked on his search program mapping and analyzing impact craters.[5]

Carolyn Shoemaker started her astronomical career in 1980, at age 51, searching for Earth-crossing asteroids and comets at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, and the Palomar Observatory, San Diego, California.[10] That year, Shoemaker was hired at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as a visiting scientist in the astronomy branch, and then in 1989 began work as an astronomy research professor at Northern Arizona University.[5] She concentrated her work on searching for comets and planet-crossing asteroids.[6] Teamed with astronomer David H. Levy, the Shoemakers identified Shoemaker-Levy 9, a fragmented comet with an orbit that intersected that of Jupiter, on March 24, 1993.[11][12]

In the 1980s and 1990s, Shoemaker used film taken at the wide-field telescope at the Palomar Observatory, combined with a stereoscope, to find objects that moved against the background of fixed stars.[2]

Following recovery from the injuries she suffered in the 1997 automobile crash in which her husband was killed, she resumed her work at the Lowell Observatory with Levy.[7] She was actively involved in astronomical observation work until at least 2002.[2] As of 2002, Shoemaker had been credited with discovering or co-discovering 32 comets and over 500 asteroids.[3]

Awards and honors

The Hildian asteroid 4446 Carolyn, discovered by colleague Edward Bowell at Lowell Observatory in 1985, was named in her honor.[13] In 1988, Shoemaker received the Rittenhouse Medal of the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society.[11]

She received the Scientist of the Year Award in 1995.[citation needed] In 1996, Shoemaker received an honorary doctorate degree from the Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal.[2] In 1998, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences named both of the Shoemakers as the recipients of the James Craig Watson Medal.[14]

List of discovered minor planets

Between 1980 and 1994, Shoemaker was credited by the Minor Planet Center with the discovery of 377 numbered minor planets.[15][needs update]


  1. ^ Mestel, Rosie (July 9, 1994). "Carolyn Shoemaker and 'Her Comet'". New Scientist. 143 (1933). p. 23.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Chapman, Mary G. (May 17, 2002). "Carolyn Shoemaker". Astrogeology Science Center. USGS. Archived from the original on November 11, 2017. Retrieved August 28, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Carolyn Shoemaker has discovered 32 comets and more than 500 asteroids". Arizona Central. Retrieved August 16, 2021.
  4. ^ Stange, Mary Zeiss; Oyster, Carol K.; Sloan, Jane E. (February 23, 2011). Encyclopedia of Women in Today's World. SAGE Publications. p. 1344. ISBN 9781412976855. Retrieved June 22, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d Wayne, Tiffany K. (2011). "Carolyn Shoemaker". Encyclopedia of Women in Today's World, Vol. 4. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
  6. ^ a b c "Gene Shoemaker | American astrogeologist". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  7. ^ a b Shoemaker, Carolyn (November 27, 1998). "Space—Where Now, and Why?". Science. 282 (5394): 1637–1638. Bibcode:1998Sci...282.1637S. doi:10.1126/science.282.5394.1637. S2CID 130632437.
  8. ^ Traub, Alex (September 1, 2021). "Carolyn Shoemaker, Hunter of Comets and Asteroids, Dies at 92". The New York Times. Retrieved September 3, 2021.
  9. ^ "In Memoriam: Carolyn Shoemaker, 1929–2021". Planetary News. August 17, 2021.
  10. ^ "She's Looking Out for Us". Explorer. American Association of Petroleum Geologists. May 2001.
  11. ^ a b Lang, Susan S. (April 11, 2002). "Comet hunter Carolyn Shoemaker to speak at Cornell April 21". Cornell Chronicle.
  12. ^ Levy, David H. (July 16, 2014). "Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9: 20 years later". Sky & Telescope. Retrieved August 31, 2019.
  13. ^ "4446 Carolyn (1985 TT)". Minor Planet Center. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  14. ^ "James Craig Watson Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on June 29, 2010. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
  15. ^ "Minor Planet Discoverers (by number)". Minor Planet Center. September 4, 2016. Retrieved September 28, 2016.

External links

  • Biography for Carolyn S. Shoemaker at IMDb