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Eugene Shoemaker

Founder of USGS Astrogeology Program

In 1961, Gene invented the Branch of Astrogeology within the U.S. Geological Survey and established the Field Center in Flagstaff in 1963. Retired from the USGS in 1993, he held an Emeritus position there and was with Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. An incredibly diverse person, he influenced science in numerous ways: most recently, in a decade-long sky survey for Earth-crossing asteroids and comets, culminating in the discovery (with wife Carolyn and David Levy) of Comet Shoemaker-Levy, which impacted Jupiter in 1994, giving the world of science a major new insight into both the dynamics of comets and the planetary science of Jupiter.

He spent numerous summers (Australian winters) exploring ancient parts of Earth for records of meteorite and comet impacts, resulting in the discovery of a number of new craters. In much of his asteroid and comet work, Shoemaker collaborated closely with his wife, Carolyn, a planetary astronomer. A close and devoted couple, their work was recently featured in a 1997 National Geographic documentary "Asteroids: Deadly Impact." They considered their work a "Mom and Pop" operation and together they initiated the Palomar Planet-crossing Asteroid Survey in 1973, and the Palomar Asteroid and Comet Survey in 1983.

Dr. Gene Shoemaker died Friday, July 18, 1997 in Alice Springs, Australia in a car accident. He was in the field, pursuing his lifelong passion of geologic studies to help understand impact craters with his wife and science partner, Carolyn Shoemaker. Carolyn survived the accident sustaining various injuries.

Finding out all we can about near-Earth asteroids is prudent. Although Eros does not come close enough to Earth for a collision, other asteroids in different orbits might. Indeed, many space rocks have struck Earth in the distant past. Even now 40 to 100 tons of smaller interplanetary debris and dust fall into Earth's atmosphere daily. If a rock larger than two-thirds of a mile (1 kilometer) in diameter should slam into Earth, tidal waves, firestorms, and other traumas could spell disaster for civilization and possibly even for all of life on our planet. Right now, one NASA program is scanning the heavens to inventory all near-Earth asteroids; so far, the total is more than 1800, but only 400 or so are rated as "potentially hazardous."

That's another reason for interest in visiting Eros--to find out how it (and other NEA's) are constructed. Are they solid rock? Or are they--like many mountains on Earth--more like compacted piles of rubble? To anyone considering either redirecting an Earth-approaching asteroid into a different (safer for Earth) orbit or blowing it to smithereens with a thermonuclear warhead, it's essential to know where best to give the asteroid an effective push or whether its fragments will disperse as much as you hope.


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