Universe  ID: 12194

The Compton Legacy: A Quarter-century of Gamma-ray Science

Twenty-five years ago this week, NASA launched the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, an astronomical satellite that transformed our knowledge of the high-energy sky. Over its nine-year lifetime, Compton produced the first-ever all-sky survey in gamma rays, the most energetic and penetrating form of light, discovered hundreds of new sources and unveiled a universe that was unexpectedly dynamic and diverse.

Compton's many findings included the discovery of a new class of galaxy powered by supermassive black holes, the surprising detection of gamma rays from thunderstorms on Earth, and the most persuasive evidence to date that gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) were the most distant and powerful explosions in the cosmos. Astronomers were so ecited by the initial results, it wasn't long before discussions turned to the need for another mission with improved instruments to get a better look, a trail that ultimately led to NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

Compton was launched April 5, 1991, on STS-37, the eighth flight of the space shuttle Atlantis. At the time, the 17-ton observatory was the heaviest astrophysical payload ever flown, a record not broken until the launch of NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and its rocket booster in 1999. The crew deployed the satellite, then known simply as the Gamma Ray Observatory, on April 7.

NASA soon renamed the satellite in honor of Arthur Holly Compton, an American physicist and Nobel laureate who discovered that high-energy light underwent a change in wavelength when it scattered off electrons and other charged particles. This process played a central role in gamma-ray detection techniques used in all of the observatory's instruments.

Compton was the second of NASA's Great Observatories, a series of ambitious astronomical satellites designed to explore different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The first launch of the program was the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. Compton was followed by the Chandra X-ray Observatory in 1999 and the infrared-sensitive Spitzer Space Telescope in 2003. All of them remain operational today except Compton, which was deliberately deorbited in 2000. Its scientific legacy continues in Fermi, Swift and other space observatories exploring the universe's highest-energy light and the extreme phenomena producing it.

For a more detailed summary of Compton's key results, download this NASA brochure published in late 1990s.


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Francis Reddy (Syneren Technologies): Lead Science Writer
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GCMD keywords can be found on the Internet with the following citation: Olsen, L.M., G. Major, K. Shein, J. Scialdone, S. Ritz, T. Stevens, M. Morahan, A. Aleman, R. Vogel, S. Leicester, H. Weir, M. Meaux, S. Grebas, C.Solomon, M. Holland, T. Northcutt, R. A. Restrepo, R. Bilodeau, 2013. NASA/Global Change Master Directory (GCMD) Earth Science Keywords. Version