Levy has now become perhaps one of the most well-known amateur astronomers
of all time. In 1993, Levy, along with Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker, was
co-discoverer of a comet that was named Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in their
honour. This comet became famous in July 1994 when it crashed into the
Shoemaker-Levy 9 was not the first comet discovered by David Levy. He
discovered his first comet in 1984. Since then, he has discovered 20
more comets, 8 from his own backyard and 13 with Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker
at the Mount Palomar Observatory in California.
David Levy was born in Montreal in 1948. Even at a very young age, he
was interested in astronomy. At age 5, he remembers asking his brother
to show him the Big Dipper constellation. At age 12, he was forced to
stay at home with a broken arm, so a cousin gave him a book about the
solar system. After reading it, Levy knew that he wanted to become an
astronomer or someone who writes books about astronomy. In 1965, when
he was a teenager, Levy saw his first comet, Ikeya-Seki. Soon he was
searching for other comets with his own telescope in his Montreal backyard.
Levy continued to look for comets while he studied English literature
first at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and then at Queen's
University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1995, Queen's awarded Levy an honorary
doctor of science degree for his comet discoveries.
As an author of 12 astronomy books, David Levy combines his interest
in writing and literature with his interest in astronomy. His 1997 book
More Things in Heaven and Earth was a compilation of ideas from both
astronomers and poets about the night sky. David Levy is also an instructional
specialist with the University of Arizona's Project ARTIST, a program
designed to bring astronomy into the elementary schools of Arizona.
Shoemaker-Levy 9 was such a significant comet because no one had ever
seen a comet crash into a planet before. The comet had actually been
ripped into a chain of 21 large pieces when it passed close to Jupiter
in 1992. When Levy and the Shoemakers first saw the comet, they thought
it looked like a string of pearls. The largest comet fragment was a
chunk of ice and rock two to three kilometres in diameter, about the
size of one of the Rocky Mountains. When it hit Jupiter, the force of
the explosion was hundreds of millions of times the force of an atom
bomb. It created a mushroom cloud larger than Asia that rose several
thousand kilometres above Jupiter's clouds. After the clouds from the
many impacts had spread and cooled, they appeared as vast black patches
which were visible for months.
The collisions were observed by many astronomy and space exploration
satellites. Voyager 2, Galileo, IUE, Ulysses, and the Hubble Space Telescope
were all able to view the impacts. The best view was offered by the
Canadian astronomy satellite Hubble Space Telescope. This made the event
even more exciting for Canadians. Not only was one of the discoverers
of the comet Canadian, but the satellite used to observe its impact
was Canadian as well.