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Comet Hunter Comes to Berea

Planetary astronomer and record-holding comet hunter Dr. Carolyn Shoemaker will speak at Berea College Feb. 24.

Carolyn Shoemaker, astronomer and record-holding “comet hunter”

Shoemaker has searched the skies, from the American Southwest to the Australian Outback, for asteroids that pose a danger to the earth. Her talk When Are We Going to Get There? The Search for Near-Earth Objects is scheduled for 3 p.m. in Phelps Stokes Chapel, and is the 2005 Berea College Science Lecture.

In all, Shoemaker has discovered more than 800 asteroids and more comets than any other living astronomer. Her most famous discovery came in March 1993. Along with her late husband and partner, Gene Shoemaker, and amateur David Levy, she found Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, actually a string of 21 separate fragments, which collided with the planet Jupiter in July 1994. The comet's advance discovery resulted in the single most spectacular and most widely studied event ever witnessed in the solar system, as each object collided with Jupiter over a period of days. The event was the first time people had observed a comet impact a planet.

Among the hundreds of asteroids she has discovered, more than 350 are now numbered. Forty-four of the new discoveries are Earth approaching asteroids.

In addition to her success as an observer, Shoemaker also developed efficient stereoscopic techniques for scanning films taken with Palomar Observatory's 46-cm Schmidt camera. These techniques have made possible more than a two-fold increase in the rate of sky coverage with the camera. It is through the pains-taking process of reading and interpreting these films that discoveries of comets and asteroids are made.

Over a period of 12 years, beginning in 1984, Shoemaker investigated meteorite craters and ancient impact structures in Australia, in collaboration with Gene Shoemaker. In addition to participating in mapping and surveying many impact sites, the Shoemakers also collected meteorites for terrestrial age determination.

Shoemaker took up astronomy relatively late in life, in 1980, at the age of 51, after her children were grown. She has worked with the U.S. Geological Survey in Astrogeologic Studies since 1980 and she has been a research professor of Astronomy at Northern Arizona University since 1989. She has been on the staff of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., since 1993, and continues to be part of a sky survey for comets with David Levy and his wife, Wendee.

Shoemaker received her bachelors and masters degrees from Chico State College in California. She received an honorary doctor of science degree from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in 1990. She has received numerous honors for her discoveries. In 1988, Carolyn Shoemaker was awarded, along with Gene Shoemaker, the Rittenhouse Medal by the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society for the discovery of comets.

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