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Astronomers focusing space technology on Star Spangled Banner

New Mexico State University astronomer Nancy Chanover and colleagues from NASA are using a one-of-a-kind camera developed for space research to examine the original Star Spangled Banner as part of a Smithsonian Institution project to preserve the old flag.


Normally mounted on a telescope and used to study planets, the special infrared camera is being trained this week on the 30-foot-by-34-foot flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the words to our national anthem.

"It's a really different application for this technology," Chanover said. "It's exciting to be able to use it to help preserve one of our national treasures."

The camera, built at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will make images of the flag using infrared light to reveal deteriorated and soiled areas not obvious to the human eye.

As Key so stirringly described in verse, the Star Spangled Banner withstood the "bombs bursting in air" over Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. But despite receiving the best possible care at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the flag is deteriorating from exposure to light, pollution and temperature fluctuations.

"We're hoping to identify areas on the flag that are perhaps more heavily damaged than others, so the conservators will know what areas they should concentrate on first," Chanover said.

To that end, she and her colleagues will make thousands of infrared images of sections of the flag and put them together into mosaics. Because different molecules of matter absorb and reflect infrared light in distinct ways, the scientists will be able to identify contaminants in the flag's fibers of wool, linen and cotton.

The camera, called the Acousto-Optic Imaging Spectrometer (AImS), is unique because of its tunable filter, Chanover said. While most infrared cameras require a different filter for every different frequency of light, the AImS filter can be tuned to any frequency in the near-infrared spectrum.

That is enormously helpful in, say, determining the chemical make-up of the surface of Mars. Closer to home, the same technology can be used to examine other things invisible to the human eye, said John Hillman, lead of the camera group at Goddard and NASA's representative on the Smithsonian team. "This exciting project is one of many practical applications for this imaging technology," he said.

Hillman, whose interest in astronomy is rivaled by his passion for art and the paintings of the great masters, saw the potential for using the camera for looking beneath the surface of a painting to see layers of brushwork and underdrawings that were painted over. "AImS can also determine the pigment used in the paint, which can distinguish an authentic piece from a forgery," he said.

The technology also has applications in skin cancer research and for analyzing prehistoric sites, Hillman said.

Infrared light is invisible to the human eye. The scientists will use AImS to make 72 separate image data sets and piece them together via computer to create mosaics of the massive flag. Each image set takes about 25 minutes to make and is composed of 200 infrared wavelengths.

"We are looking for things that can't be seen easily or at all with the human eye, such as moisture and oils," Hillman said. "Moisture is of particular concern because in the presence of light it causes a chemical reaction that deteriorates wool."

Chanover's involvement in the flag preservation project stems from a collaboration with Goddard Space Flight Center scientists that she began while a graduate student at NMSU. After receiving her Ph.D. in astronomy in early 1997, she worked with Hillman as a National Research Council postdoctoral associate at Goddard, then returned to NMSU this fall as a faculty member.

Chanover has used the AImS camera in her planetary research at Apache Point Observatory in the Sacramento Mountains south of Cloudcroft. NMSU operates Apache Point for the Astrophysical Research Consortium, a group of seven universities and research institutions.

Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, head of the flag conservation effort and textile conservator at the National Museum of History, said she selected AImS for the project because of its special ability to make an image with reflected infrared light. "A typical infrared camera relies on thermal infrared, which is light emitted by an object due to its heat, but these cameras cannot identify contaminants on the flag because they are the same temperature as the flag itself."

In addition to Hillman and Chanover, the AImS team includes Cheryl Vorvick and Chuck Peruso of Goddard, Bill Blass of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and Jeff Goldstein of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

The flag preservation is one of the projects of the Millennium Fund to Save America's Treasures, which First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton promoted in her Save America's Treasures Tour in July.