X-Ray Astronomy

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X-ray astronomy

At the high-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum , x rays provide a unique window on some of the hottest and most violent objects in the universe. Since the discovery of extra-solar x-ray sources in 1962, scientists have investigated a large number of phenomena which emit x rays. With each new space mission, more sources and more details of the structure of the xray universe have been gleaned.


Although they are among the most energetic of the electromagnetic spectrum , and thus provide a window on some of the most violent processes in the universe, x rays are not able to penetrate Earth's atmosphere; they are absorbed at about 62 mi (100 km) above the surface. Thus, only with the advent of rocket and satellite astronomy have astronomers been able to study the wide-ranging phenomena which produce x rays. The highest energy x rays have also been studied by balloons high in Earth's atmosphere, but there are far fewer photons at these energies than at the lower energies that can be observed above the atmosphere.

X rays are also difficult to bring to a focus, since their energies are so high. Therefore, an important breakthrough in x-ray astronomy was the advent of imaging telescopes, replacing instruments which could only crudely tell in which direction an x-ray source was located. The telescopes with which we are most familiar, consisting of lenses or mirrors that capture light arriving at normal incidence (perpendicular to the surface) won't work in the xray region of the spectrum, since the x rays pass through unchanged or are absorbed by the optics . Instead, x-ray astronomers use grazing incidence telescopes, in which the light from the source strikes mirrors at angles of only a few degrees, skipping like stones over the surface of water . By combining two mirrors, the energy can be focused onto a detector in order to provide a sharp image of the source.


Although the temperature of the sun's surface is about 6,000K (10,341°F; 5,727°C), by the 1930s there was evidence that the outer regions of the solar atmosphere were much hotter, meaning that they could be a source of x rays. At that time there was no way to verify this prediction, however. After World War II, when captured V-2 rockets allowed scientists to place instruments outside the protective atmosphere for the first time, a number of experiments were able to show that the Sun did indeed produce x rays.

The strongest early evidence came in 1948, when xray detectors registered x rays were coming from the direction of the Sun. Further investigations showed that the total x-ray output of the Sun was only a tiny fraction of the total energy generated. Because the total x-ray output was so small, despite the fact that the Sun is so close in terms of interstellar distances, many believed that no other sources would be found.

In 1962, a rocket was sent up to look for x rays from the Moon , which was theorized to generate x rays due to solar wind bombardment. No emission was detected from the Moon, but in a surprising discovery, the detector registered an x-ray source in the direction of the constellation Scorpio, along with a diffuse background coming from all directions; the source was called Scorpius X-1.

Since that time, a large number of rocket and Earth-orbiting satellites have discovered tens of thousands of x-ray sources in the sky, many of which are many orders of magnitude brighter than the Sun. The Crab Nebula, for instance, produces approximately 2,000 times more energy in the x-ray region of the spectrum than the Sun does over all wavelengths. Thus we now know that the Sun is relatively quiet as far as x-ray sources go.

The x-ray universe

A wide variety of x-ray sources have been seen since the first extrasolar identification in 1962. A few of the most interesting types of sources are:

The Sun. A number of x-ray satellites have monitored the Sun. Solar flares produce enhancements in its x-ray output.

Stars. Many stars, particularly those with coronae or rapid stellar winds, emit x rays from their outer layers.

Comets . Astronomers have detected x-ray emission from 10 different comets since the phenomenon was first discovered in 1996 with Comet Hyakutake.

Scientists believe that x rays are generated by some sort of interaction between the solar wind and the comet's atmosphere, ionosphere, or atoms within the nucleus.

Groups of galaxies in hot clouds . Bright x-radiation is seen emanating from clusters of galaxies, which, due to their enormous gravitational pull, trap gas in the region. This gas is very hot, and there is a large amount of it. It thus glows in the x-ray region.

X-ray background. The sky is not dark in the x-ray region of the sky like it is in the visible. The diffuse background which was detected in the rocket flight described above is still not understood, although some believe it may be the result of many individual, unresolved sources.

X-ray binaries. These are close binary stars in which gas from one star falls onto its companion, heats up, and gives off x rays. This is especially bright when the companion is a compact stellar remnant such as a neutron star or black hole , because the enormous gravitational field compresses and heats the incoming gas, causing it to glow at x-ray wavelengths.

Supernova remnants. Explosions of stars, or supernovae, show traces of the heavy elements that are formed there when their x-ray spectra are examined.

Quasars and active galactic nuclei . These are among the most energetic objects in the universe, and they emit enormous quantities of radiation at x-ray wavelengths. It is thought that the ultimate source of this energy is a supermassive black hole, surrounded by an accretion disk of in-falling gas that is heated to many millions of degrees.

X-ray missions

Among the largest and most productive x-ray missions were Uhuru (1970), which catalogued 339 x-ray sources; Einstein (also known as HEAO-2, 1978-1981); and EXOSAT (1983-1986). In addition, there have been many smaller-scale observations.

The more recent missions, such as the German ROSAT (Röntgensatellit), launched in 1990, contain very sophisticated instrumentation, including detectors and grazing incidence telescopes, which can pinpoint the location of an x-ray source to very high accuracy, and take x-ray pictures to show the shape and distribution of the source. This is an important improvement over early missions, which often were not able to determine the exact location of the x-ray sources, making it difficult to correlate the source with an object that could be detected in another wavelength region.

Recent missions have also been able to measure the x-ray spectrum, or strength of the radiation in different energy bands. This allows the identification of particular elements in the source. ROSAT identified more than 50,000 x-ray sources during its survey phase, when it scanned the sky for six months. It also finally succeeded in detecting x rays from the Moon, nearly 30 years after the first attempt to do so.

NASA launched the Advanced X ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF), named the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Designed with a resolution 25 times better than any preceding x-ray telescope , CXO passes around the earth in an elliptical orbit , studying black holes, supernovas, and dark matter and in an attempt to increase our understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe.



Tucker, Wallace, and Riccardo Giacconi. The X-ray Universe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.


Beatty, J. Kelly. "ROSAT and the X-ray Universe." Sky & Telescope (August 1990):128.

Margon, Bruce. "Exploring the High-Energy Universe." Sky & Telescope (December 1991): 607.

Van den Heuvel, Edward P.J., and Jan van Paradijs. "X-ray Binaries." Scientific American (November 1993): 64.

David Sahnow


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Grazing incidence telescope

—A telescope design in which the incoming radiation strikes the mirrors at very small angles.


—A display of the intensity of radiation versus wavelength.

X-ray Astronomy

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X-ray astronomy

Stars and other celestial objects radiate energy in many wavelengths other than visible light, which is only one small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. At the low end (with wavelengths longer than visible light) are low-energy infrared radiation and radio waves. At the high end of the spectrum (wavelengths shorter than visible light) are high-energy ultraviolet radiation, X rays, and gamma rays.

X-ray astronomy is a relatively new scientific field focusing on celestial objects that emit X rays. Such objects include stars, galaxies, quasars, pulsars, and black holes.

Earth's atmosphere filters out most X rays. This is fortunate for humans and other life on Earth since a large dose of X rays would be deadly. On the other hand, this fact makes it difficult for scientists to observe the X-ray sky. Radiation from the shortest-wavelength end of the X-ray range, called hard X rays, can be detected at high altitudes. The only way to view longer X rays, called soft X rays, is through special telescopes placed on artificial satellites orbiting outside Earth's atmosphere.

First interstellar X rays detected

In 1962, an X-ray telescope was launched into space by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) aboard an Aerobee rocket. The rocket contained an X-ray telescope devised by physicist Ricardo Giacconi (1931 ) and his colleagues from a company called American Science and Engineering, Inc. (ASEI). During its six-minute flight, the telescope detected the first X rays from interstellar space, coming particularly from the constellation Scorpius.

Later flights detected X rays from the Crab Nebula (where a pulsar was later discovered) and from the constellation Cygnus. X rays in this latter site are believed to be coming from a black hole. By the late 1960s, astronomers had become convinced that while some galaxies are sources of strong X rays, all galaxies (including our own Milky Way) emit weak X rays.

Words to Know

Black holes: Remains of a massive star that has burned out its nuclear fuel and collapsed under tremendous gravitational force into a single point of infinite mass and gravity.

Electromagnetic radiation: Radiation that transmits energy through the interaction of electricity and magnetism.

Electromagnetic spectrum: The complete array of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves (at the longest-wavelength end), microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X rays, and gamma rays (at the shortest-wavelength end).

Gamma rays: Short-wavelength, high-energy radiation formed either by the decay of radioactive elements or by nuclear reactions.

Infrared radiation: Electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength shorter than radio waves but longer than visible light that takes the form of heat.

Pulsars: Rapidly spinning, blinking neutron stars.

Quasars: Extremely bright, starlike sources of radio waves that are the oldest known objects in the universe.

Radiation: Energy transmitted in the form of subatomic particles or waves.

Radio waves: Longest form of electromagnetic radiation, measuring up to 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) from peak to peak.

Ultraviolet radiation: Electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength just shorter than the violet (shortest wavelength) end of the visible light spectrum.

Wavelength: The distance between two troughs or two peaks in any wave.

X rays: Electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength just shorter than ultraviolet radiation but longer than gamma rays that can penetrate solids and produce an electrical charge in gases.

In 1970, NASA launched Uhuru, the first satellite designed specifically for X-ray research. It produced an extensive map of the X-ray sky. In 1977, the first of three High Energy Astrophysical Observatories (HEAO) was launched. During its year and a half of operation, it provided constant monitoring of X-ray sources, such as individual stars, entire galaxies, and pulsars. The second HEAO, known as the Einstein Observatory, operated from November 1978 to April 1981. It contained a high resolution X-ray telescope that discovered that X rays are coming from nearly every star.

In July 1999, NASA launched the Chandra X-ray Observatory (CXO), named after the Nobel Prize-winning, Indian-born American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (19101995). About one billion times more powerful than the first X-ray telescope, the CXO has a resolving power equal to the ability to read the letters of a stop sign at a distance of 12 miles (19 kilometers). This will allow it to detect sources more than twenty times fainter than any previous X-ray telescope. The CXO orbits at an altitude 200 times higher than the Hubble Space Telescope. During each orbit around Earth, it travels one-third of the way to the Moon.

The purpose of the CXO is to obtain X-images and spectra of violent, high-temperature celestial events and objects to help astronomers better understand the structure and evolution of the universe. It will observe galaxies, black holes, quasars, and supernovae (among other objects) billions of light-years in the distance, giving astronomers a glimpse of regions of the universe as they existed eons ago. In early 2001, the

CXO found the most distant X-ray cluster of galaxies astronomers have ever observed, located about 10 billion light-years away from Earth. Less than a month later, it detected an X-ray quasar 12 billion light-years away. These are both important discoveries that may help astronomers understand how the universe evolved.

[See also Telescope; X rays ]

X-ray astronomy

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X-ray astronomy See astronomy