This Comet Was Discovered Thanks to a Microscope, Not a Telescope

Illustration for article titled This Comet Was Discovered Thanks to a Microscope, Not a Telescope

In 1994, a comet collided with Jupiter. But, even before that fatal collision, the comet was exceptional for something else: the tool that had first discovered it a year earlier.


io9’s comment of the day today comes from acemanex, who reminded us of this little space romance, starring a comet that almost got missed entirely and the woman who plucked it from obscurity. Here’s how Carolyn Shoemaker, her husband Gene Shoemaker, and David Levy uncovered a comet not with a telescope, but through the much smaller lens of a microscope:

Comet Shoemaker-Levy and the impact on Jupiter following just the barely decades old realization that the Solar System’s asteroid belt isn’t as static as humanity thought it was. Space rocks moved a lot after all! Through tough old school methods Gene Shoemaker, and possibly most importantly, Carolyn Shoemaker looking through a microscope (asteroids were small relatively speaking) on developed exposures from a telescope discovered, and confirmed by David Levy, what possibly would be and still is the most observed planetary impact of all time. The crater is the size of Earth on Jupiter and shocked the hell out of everyone! . . . Oh by the way, Carolyn Shoemaker pretty much owned this era in terms of tracking and discovering space rocks. She held the record personally for most discovered comets at one point and for a long time. But think about it, she did it manually with a microscope and developed film from a kind of outdated telescope even then. Currently with digital computer tracking tech and full scientific teams that are far more funded than she and her husband ever were, that feat is just more amazing to me. No singular person is ever going to be able to claim it without some caveat or another.

Image: Shoemaker-Levy / Hubble, NASA



Sometimes you just need film. Digital is quick and all. But sometimes old school is better. I sure miss shooting with my old 4x5 Crown Graphic. Taking 15 or 20 minutes to set up a closeup of something then waiting until the wind dies down. Then not knowing for sure if you got the shot for a day or two. Ah, things just move too fast now.