CUDDLING UP IN A QUILT OF GAMMA-RAY STARSDolores Beasley
Headquarters, Washington, DC
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
July 19, 2000
The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory is gone, but its memory lives on -- in a quilt museum located in a rural Virginia town. A retired couple in Elkwood, VA took two gamma-ray images their son received from NASA, back in 1993, and turned them into spectacular coverlets.
One image, of the Crab and Geminga pulsars, is on display through September 18 at the Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg. The second, of a gamma-ray quasar called 3C 279, will have its first public viewing during a symposium on the Compton mission July 19 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
"I can't say I know much about quilt-making, but these are fabulous reproductions of the original Compton images, right down to the smallest detail, or data point," said Dr. Neil Gehrels, a Goddard astrophysicist and project scientist for the mission. "We could use them as view graphs at meetings if the electricity should ever fail."
The cosmic quilt makers are Rose and Albert Costanzo, a retired couple who manage a Christmas tree farm. In their ten years of quilting, they have never made an astronomy-themed quilt. Nor do they consider themselves amateur astronomers. Mrs. Costanzo was simply struck by the gamma-ray images that her son showed her, captured by the Energetic Gamma-Ray Experiment Telescope (EGRET), one of Compton's four instruments.
Mrs. Costanzo wrote to Goddard in June after hearing about the controlled re-entry of the Compton observatory over the Pacific Ocean. "I saw in the paper that their satellite was deliberately crashed in the ocean," said Mrs. Costanzo. "I just wanted them to know that one of EGRET's many images can now be seen as a quilt hanging in a museum."
Quilts have long served as a medium for astronomical images. The Bayeaux Tapestry, an embroidery measuring more than 230 feet long and 20 inches wide, depicts the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1064, which William the Conqueror saw as a sign from God that he and not Harold of England was the rightful heir of the English throne.
Seven years ago, the Costanzos' son, Daniel, now a volunteer coordinator for the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum, thought that new Compton images he had seen would lend themselves to a quilt design.
Daniel Costanzo contacted Dr. Dave Thompson, a Goddard astrophysicist who works closely with EGRET data. Dr. Thompson quickly sent the family two photographs of EGRET, not knowing how they would be used.
Mrs. Costanzo's letter to Dr. Thompson contained a photograph of the Crab and Geminga quilt. The EGRET team members at Goddard were so impressed that they asked the Costanzos to join them at the Compton symposium and to bring the second quilt. The Goddard Visitors Center may also display both quilts.
With the success of the Compton quilts, the Costanzos plan to attempt yet another celestial image, perhaps from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra has already captured hundreds of dramatic images of supernovae and flaring stars.
Rose Costanzo is a former school teacher and one of the first women to graduate from St. Bonaventure University. Albert Costanzo, a veteran of three wars, is a retired Army colonel and was a West Point classmate of Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.
The Compton Observatory, launched in 1991, re-entered the earth's atmosphere during a controlled reentry on June 4, 2000. GLAST, the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope scheduled for a 2005 launch, will essentially cover the EGRET energy range with 50 times the sensitivity.
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