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Press Room

Planetary Society Marks 10th Anniversary of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9's Plummet into Jupiter with Funding for New NEO Research


Mat Kaplan
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

Ten years ago the fragmented Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter in a series of tremendous impacts, the first piece striking on July 16, 1994. The Planetary Society is marking that catastrophic anniversary with a call to asteroid researchers to submit new proposals for the Society's Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants, named in honor of Gene Shoemaker, who, with his wife Carolyn and David Levy, discovered the infamous comet.

“Shoemaker-Levy 9 visibly reminded us that catastrophic impacts happen in our Solar System, and they can happen anytime,” said Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts. “It is a small probability threat, but one with potentially dire consequences. This is one of the few natural disasters we can prevent but only if we invest the time and money.”

Earth travels through a swarm of near-Earth objects (NEOs) – comets and asteroids – of various sizes and orbits, the impacts of which have shaped the evolution of all planets in our solar system. Scientists have only recently begun to understand the significant contribution NEOs have made to the evolution of Earth and to life on our planet.

NEOs have collided with Earth in the past just as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter, violently releasing enormous amounts of energy. Many scientists believe an impact off the north coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Just 10 years ago, Earth watched the bombardment of another planet, demonstrating that the threat posed by objects hurtling through our solar system is not a relic of the past.

After his death in 1997, The Planetary Society named its NEO Grant program for Gene Shoemaker. Shoemaker was a leader in the study of impact structures and an advocate for NEO discovery and tracking programs. The grants are awarded to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers who, with seed funding, can greatly increase their programs' contributions to this critical research.

David Levy said, "Through encouraging observers to search for and do research on asteroids and comets, the Gene Shoemaker Near-Earth Object grants help contribute to our understanding the role that these objects have played in the evolution of the solar system."

Shoemaker grant winners have been highly productive in NEO studies. Many are continuously doing follow-up observations of objects discovered by larger asteroid survey programs so that accurate orbits can be determined. For example, Roy Tucker, a 2002 grant awardee, became the world's 8th most productive asteroid astrometry station when his observatory made 50,799 asteroid position observations in 2003 alone. Without these types of measurements, it is impossible to determine whether the objects present a threat to Earth.

Grant recipients have also discovered many previously unknown asteroids, including John Broughton’s April 11, 2004 discovery of 2004 GA1. This is possibly the first amateur discovery of a potentially hazardous NEO exceeding one kilometer in diameter. More updates on past winners can be found at the web site:

Since The Planetary Society's inception in 1980, the organization has funded over $250,000 for asteroid research, about half of which was awarded through 17 Shoemaker NEO grants to observers around the world. Society-funded programs have yielded several asteroid discoveries. Shoemaker NEO grant money has been used for everything from upgrading equipment to purchasing CCD cameras to paying the salaries of graduate students involved in observing programs.

About 40% of the estimated total number of one-kilometer or larger objects that cross Earth's orbit have been discovered. Government support for searches and follow-up programs remains modest so programs like The Planetary Society's Gene Shoemaker NEO grants fill a vital niche.


October 1, 2004 is the deadline for applicants to apply for current Shoemaker NEO grants. Grant sizes are typically $3,000 to $10,000. The Planetary Society welcomes applications from amateur and under-funded professional observers anywhere in the world.

Funding for the Gene Shoemaker NEO Grant program comes from The Planetary Society's members, whose voluntary dues and donations permit targeted support of research and development programs in a number of areas.

An international advisory group recommends candidates to receive the grant awards. The advisory group includes grant coordinator Daniel D. Durda, as well as noted near-Earth object scientists Alan Harris of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Brian Marsden of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Other international participants are being added to this year’s panel.


About The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. With the mission to empower the world's citizens to advance space science and exploration, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world. Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded The Planetary Society in 1980. Bill Nye, a longtime member of The Planetary Society's Board, serves as CEO.