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Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker
Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker

Impending Impact!

At about 5 p.m. PST on March 25, 1993, David Levy, Eugene Shoemaker, and Carolyn Shoemaker asked Jim Scotti at Kitt Peak Observatory near Tucson, Ariz., to confirm their codiscovery of a new comet with the Spacewatch 36-inch telescope.

"Do we have a comet?" David Levy asked. The response: "Boy, do you ever have a comet!" Jim Scotti reported seeing at least five separate comet pieces side by side with additional comet matter between them.

The confirmation of their discovery of Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) initiated one of mankind's most exciting periods of scientific findings. It was the first time in history that human beings would witness a collision between a comet and a planet.

Comet Nearly Undiscovered!

On the night of March 23, 1993, one comet almost missed having its picture taken! The California weather at Mount Palomar would not cooperate. Thick clouds flowed in from the west. Some of the film for that night's pictures could not be used because it was black from being accidentally exposed to light. Astronomers did manage to salvage film that had been partially exposed to light and was black around the edges.

Unwilling to sacrifice their limited viewing time, the team proceeded with their photography. The clouds parted briefly, and the SL9 team took pictures during the only two viewing times possible with their equipment. Two days later, Carolyn Shoemaker viewed the two images. To her surprise, she saw a squashed-looking comet near Jupiter!

David Levy
David Levy

A Scientist's Viewpoint: David Levy

"This comet totally dominated the lives of its discoverers -- Carolyn and Gene Shoemaker and me -- from the time we discovered it in March 1993 to the most recent conference devoted entirely to the impact the comet caused. That conference took place in Paris in 1996. The impacts were a watershed in the history of astronomy, for they marked the first time that humanity saw such an important process taking place. Comet impacts are responsible for the delivery of the building blocks of life to Earth, and for many changes in Earth's biosphere since life began."