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Compton Gamma Ray Observatory

Phase: Past

Launch Date: April 05, 1991

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The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory was the second of NASA's Great Observatories. Compton, at 17 tons, was the heaviest astrophysical payload ever flown at the time of its launch on April 5, 1991 aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. Compton was safely deorbited and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on June 4, 2000.

The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (GGRO) was a sophisticated satellite observatory dedicated to observing the high-energy Universe. It was the second in NASA's program of orbiting "Great Observatories", following the Hubble Space Telescope. While Hubble's instruments operate at visible and ultraviolet wavelengths, Compton carried a collection of four instruments which together detected an unprecedented broad range of high-energy radiation called gamma rays. These instruments are the Burst And Transient Source Experiment (BATSE), the Oriented Scintillation Spectrometer Experiment (OSSE), the Imaging Compton Telescope (COMPTEL), and the Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope (EGRET).

These four instruments were much larger and more sensitive than any gamma-ray telescopes previously flown in space. The large size was necessary because the number of gamma-ray interactions that can be recorded is directly related to the mass of the detector. Since the number of gamma-ray photons from celestial sources is very small compared to the number of optical photons, large instruments are needed to detect a significant number of gamma rays in a reasonable amount of time. The combination of these instruments detected photon energies from 20 thousand electron volts (20 keV) to more than 30 billion electron volts (30 GeV).

Compton had four instruments that covered an unprecedented six decades of the electromagnetic spectrum, from 30 keV to 30 GeV. In order of increasing spectral energy coverage, these instruments were the Burst And Transient Source Experiment (BATSE), the Oriented Scintillation Spectrometer Experiment (OSSE), the Imaging Compton Telescope (COMPTEL), and the Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope (EGRET). For each of the instruments, an improvement in sensitivity of better than a factor of ten was realized over previous missions.

The Observatory was named in honor of Dr. Arthur Holly Compton, who won the Nobel prize in physics for work on scattering of high-energy photons by electrons - a process which is central to the gamma-ray detection techniques of all four instruments.

Science Highlights:

  • Discovered hundreds of previously unknown sources of gamma rays, including 30 exotic objects
  • Detected gamma rays streaming from: black holes, exploding stars, and from the Sun
  • Helped astronomers determine how black holes trigger massive jets of X-rays and gamma rays that move outward at nearly the speed of light
  • Detected more than 2,600 gamma ray bursts
  • Divided gamma ray bursts into two kinds:
    1. short duration that last less than 2 seconds, and
    2. long duration that last longer than 2 seconds.

In 2011, Gerald Fishman and Enrico Costa shared the Shaw Prize in Astronomy for their leadership of space missions that enabled the demonstration of the cosmological origin of gamma ray bursts, the brightest sources known in the universe. Fishman was the principal investigator of the BATSE experiment aboard CGRO, while Costa led the development of the Dutch-Italian satellite BeppoSAX which launched in 1996.

Last Updated: April 15, 2016

Related Links
  • STS-37 info -
  • NASA's Great Observatories -
  • More about CGRO -
  • 25th Anniversary article (2016) -
  • Blueshift Legacy article (2016) -