Eugene Shoemaker, co-discoverer of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that crashed into Jupiter 3 years ago, died today in a two-car accident in central Australia. He was 69. His wife and longtime scientific collaborator, Carolyn, suffered broken bones, and is in stable condition.
Shoemaker did pioneering work on the Barringer Meteor Crater, near Winslow, Arizona, showing that it was the result of a strike by a meteor that exploded upon impact. He was also an early proponent of the idea that past asteroid or comet impacts may have caused mass extinctions--including the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. "He created the concept that Earth and the planets are pummeled by asteroids and comets," says planetary scientist Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
In 1973, the two Shoemakers began a survey of asteroids that cross Earth's orbit to try to discover the threat they pose to Earth today, discovering more than 800 asteroids. Their best-known discovery, however, was the fragmented comet that plunged into Jupiter as scientists watched in nearly real time.
Shoemaker "was the preeminent planetary scientist of recent years," says Chapman. The loss to planetary science is "incalculable," says David Morrison, director of space programs at NASA Ames Research Center, who has also studied near-Earth asteroids. "He was the father of the whole field." In a statement, astronomer Edward Bowell of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, said Shoemaker had "single-handedly invented our knowledge of the impacts of comets and asteroids on Earth and in the solar system in general. ... I am stunned to think of the store of unique knowledge that has perished with him."