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July 22: The Shoemaker-Levy Comet

July 21, 2015

shoemaker04_02The last fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy collided spectacularly with the planet Jupiter on this date in 1994, giving astronomers the first-ever view of an extraterrestrial collision within our own solar system (photographed from 150 million miles away by the spacecraft Galileo). The Shoemaker-Levy comet was the first observed to be orbiting a planet rather than the Sun; Jupiter seems to have captured it between two and three decades earlier. The comet was pulled apart before crashing into the planet, which gave insight into the giant planet’s role as a cleanser of space debris that keeps it from reaching the inner solar system, including the Earth. David H. Levy, a Canadian scientist and writer who co-discovered the comet the year before with American scientists Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker, has since discovered or co-discovered twenty-two other comets and written thirty-four books. In 2010, Levy earned his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University for a thesis about the observation of celestial events in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature.

“In the year 1456... a Comet was seen passing Retrograde between the Earth and the sun... Hence I dare venture to foretell, that it will return again in the year 1758” —Edmond Halley