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What are X-Rays?

X-rays are a form of light, but much more energetic than the light detected by our eyes. The energy of
an X-ray photon (light particle) is ~1000 times that of a photon of visible light. They are part of the
electromagnetic spectrum which includes visible light, radio waves, microwaves and infra red

X-rays are emitted from things that are really hot - millions of degrees.

X-rays were discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Rntgen, a German physics professor working in a
laboratory in the Physical Institute of the University of Wrzburg. For this discovery he won the first
Nobel prize in physics in 1901. He named them "X" rays as he was not sure what they were.

They are absorbed better by materials which are dense, and so, when used in hospitals, they are
stopped more by the bone and any metal (e.g. dental fillings) then the fleshy parts of the body.

X-rays have a tendency to go through things compared to visible light, but they are also fairly easily
absorbed - a few metres of air will stop them - This is because the atmosphere contains water which
is opaque to X-rays.

However this does mean that we need to get into orbit to look at X-rays from space.Therefore we
need satellites to be able to do any X-ray astronomy.

History of X-Ray
The first attempts at X-ray astronomy were just to see if there was any form of X-ray radiation in space.
The instruments were simple detectors carried aloft on rockets which then parachuted back down to
Earth. They detected X-ray emission from the Sun. The surface of the Sun is relatively cool (5800K)
and so doesn't produce many X-rays, but is therefore a very good emitter of visible light. For an object
to emit most of its light in X-rays its temperature has to be ~6,000,000 degrees. However the Sun is
surrounded by a corona which is a much stronger emitter of X-rays as it is super-heated to
Then in 1962 a simple X-ray detecting payload went up from New Mexico to try and detect reflected
X-ray emission from the Moon. The rocket was above 80 km for 5 minutes and 50 seconds and
reached a maximum height above the Earth's surface of 225 km. The payload rotated in space and
it was expected that there would be peaks in the X-ray emission as it pointed at the Sun and the
Moon. These were detected, but there was something else there that was much brighter, coming
from the constellation of Scorpius and was called Sco X-1. It is the brightest object in the X-ray sky,
much brighter than the full Moon. Suddenly there was the possibility that there were things in space
that could be researched with X-rays. Giacconi won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2002 for his
development of X-ray astronomy.

X-Ray Satellites

There are two major X-ray Satellites currently in orbit taking data and producing exciting
XMM-NEWTON -is a European Space Agency mission and was launched on an Ariane V
rocket from French Guiana on December 10, 1999.
CHANDRA -is a NASA mission and was launched on the Space Shuttle Columbia on 23rd
July 1999.

X-Ray Mirrors
As we have seen X-rays have a tendency to go through materials and as such they are not
trivial to focus. They will only bounce off a mirror surface if the incident angle is very
shallow. Therefore the mirrors in X-ray telescopes are aligned almost parallel to the
incident photon direction. This is known as grazing incidence optics. It is similar to
skimming stones over the surface of a pond. If they come in too steep they will break the
surface, whereas if the angle is just right they will bounce off.

X-ray Detectors
There are various types of X-ray detectors which work in different ways
and are good at telling different things about the source.

Photo-Multiplier tubes: these convert the X-ray into an electron,

which then knocks further electrons out of a tube, which eventually
produce an electrical pulse at the far end of the detector. The size of the
pulse depends on the energy of the incoming X-ray. These have now been
replaced by "Micro Channel Plates."

Charge-Coupled Devices (CCD's): these work as electrons change

energy levels in Semi-conductors after they have been hit by an X-ray.
They are good general purpose detectors as they have good spatial and
spectral resolution and are the primary detectors on most of the modern Xray telescopes.

Calorimeters/Bolometers: these convert the energy of the X-ray

photon to heat and the temperature rise of the detector depends on the
energy of the X-ray. These have to be kept very cold as then they are more
accurate ASTRO E2 has this type of detector onboard.

X-ray Emission Processes

X-ray emission from extended sources, e.g. clusters, arises
mainly from Thermal Bremsstrahlung (German - "breaking
radiation"). This occurs when an electron is deflected from its
path by an ion - an atom which has had some or all of its
electrons removed and so has a positive charge, attracting the
negative electron. This process causes the electron to emit a
photon of light. If the electrons have enough energy they will
emit X-rays in this process.
X-rays can also be emitted, and absorbed, when electrons
are captured by the ion. The new ion/atom then has to get
rid of the excess energy which it does so by emitting a photon.
This can occur at X-ray wavelengths but also occurs at visible
light - Sodium street lights are an example of this type of
radiation. Line emission tends to occur at lower X-ray

Another process which affects X-rays is Compton Scattering

where free electrons collide with photons (and vice-versa),
which causes a change in energy of the electron, and hence
the photon, which changes its wavelength as a result. In this
case the photons are so energetic they can be treated as
particles rather than waves and so interact with the electrons
rather like billiard balls.
These processes have all been thermal - i.e. they arise
because the gas/plasma is very hot and therefore everything
moves fast. In some cases X-rays come from "non-thermal"
sources, the electrons move very fast but are not "hot." In a
gas which is hot the particles all jostle into one another
randomly, and the faster they move the hotter the gas. In a
non-thermal source, the particles move very fast but don't
jostle into one another. If these particles are charged and
move within a magnetic field, then they will emit Synchrotron
(or Cyclotron) radiation. This type of radiation spreads over
many wavelengths - from the radio to the X-ray.


NASA's premier X-ray observatory was named the Chandra X-ray Observatory in honor
of the late Indian-American Nobel laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Known to
the world as Chandra, he was widely regarded as one of the foremost astrophysicists
of the twentieth century.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which was launched and deployed by Space
Shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999, is the most sophisticated X-ray observatory built to

Chandra is designed to observe X-rays from high-energy regions of the universe, such
as the remnants of exploded stars.

Chandra Hardware
X-ray telescopes must be very different from optical telescopes. Because of their high-energy, Xray photons penetrate into a mirror in much the same way that bullets slam into a wall. Likewise,
just as bullets ricochet when they hit a wall at a grazing angle, so too will X-rays ricochet off
mirrors.The mirrors have to be exquisitely shaped and aligned nearly parallel to incoming X-rays.
Thus they look more like glass barrels than the familiar dish shape of optical telescopes.
Mirrors were painstakingly cleaned--to the equivalent of at most one speck of dust on an area the
size of your computer screen. Then they were coated with the highly reflective rare metal,
iridium. They are the smoothest and cleanest mirrors ever made.

Science Instruments on Chandra

High Resolution Camera (HRC):The High Resolution Camera is one of two
instruments used at the focus of Chandra, where it detects X-rays reflected from an assembly of
eight mirrors. The unique capabilities of the (HRC) stem from the close match of its imaging
capability to the focusing power of the mirrors. When used with the Chandra mirrors, the (HRC)
can make images that reveal detail as small as one-half an arc second. This is equivalent to the
ability to read a newspaper at a distance of half a mile.

Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS):

is one of two focal plane

instruments. As the name suggests, this instrument is an array of charged coupled devices
(CCD's), which are sophisticated versions of the crude CCD's used in camcorders. This
instrument is especially useful because it can make X-ray images, and at the same time,
measure the energy of each incoming X-ray. Thus scientists can make pictures of objects using
only X-rays produced by a single chemical element, and so compare (for example) the
appearance of a supernova remnant in light produced by oxygen ions to that of neon or iron
ions. It is the instrument of choice for studying temperature variations across X-ray sources such
as vast clouds of hot gas in intergalactic space, or chemical.

The High Resolution Spectrometers - HETGS and LETGS :

There are
two instruments aboard Chandra dedicated to high resolution spectroscopy: the High Energy
Transmission Grating Spectrometer and the Low Energy Transmission Grating Spectrometer. Each
spectrometer is activated by swinging an assembly into position behind the mirrors. The
assembly holds hundreds of gold transmission gratings: when in place behind the mirrors, the
gratings intercept the X-rays reflected from the mirrors. These gratings diffract the intercepted Xrays, changing their direction by amounts that depend sensitively on the X-ray energy, much like
a prism separates light into its component colors. One of the focal plane cameras, either HRC or
ACIS, detects the location of the diffracted X-ray, enabling a precise determination of its energy.
(A grating is able to diffract because it has a regularly spaced pattern. For example, music CDs
act as a type of grating: the grooves diffract, so that when light falls on the shiny side of the CD,

Facts about Chandra

Chandra can observe X-rays from particles up to the last second before they fall into a black
The light from some of the quasars observed by Chandra will have been traveling through space
for ten billion years.
The electrical power required to operate the Chandra spacecraft and instruments is 2 kilowatts,
about the same power as a hair dryer.
Chandra's resolving power is equivalent to the ability to read a stop sign at a distance of twelve
If Colorado were as smooth as Chandra's mirrors, Pikes Peak would be less than one inch tall!
At 45 feet long, Chandra is the largest satellite the shuttle has ever launched.
Chandra can observe X-rays from clouds of gas so vast that it takes light five million years to go
from one side to the other!


All Sky Surveys :

The most well known of these is the ROSAT All Sky Survey (RASS)
carried out over 6 months between 1990 and 1991. This was the first survey taken with an X-ray
telescope which could image. All previous surveys could only measure the total count rate from a
given "pointing" and so point and extended sources were not distinguishable. It detected more than
60 000 X-ray sources over the whole sky. The image above shows the 50 000 sources detected in
the first round of the data processing. The map is in galactic coordinates, so that the top and
bottom parts show the `extragalactic' X-ray sky, i.e., the regions we see when looking away from
the plane of the Milky Way which runs horizontally through the Centre of the above image. The
colours from red to white represent the average energies of the photons emitted by the different
sources: red stands for low energies corresponding to relatively cool temperatures of several 100
000 K, whereas the detection of `white sources' indicates the presence of gas at temperatures in
excess of 20 million K.

Normal Stars :

Normal stars, like our Sun, produce some X-rays in their outer
atmosphere. The gas in this regions, known as the Chromosphere, is very hot and tenuous. Flares
and prominences on the surface of the Sun also produce X-rays as a result of reconnection of
magnetic fields. They do not emit many X-rays in comparison with the emission associated with
Black Holes and Clusters of Galaxies.

An X-ray image of the closest star, Proxima Centauri. This shows that X-ray images from nearby
stars on the whole tell us little, spectra on the other hand can tell us more.

Supernovae :

Normal stars like our Sun fuse Hydrogen to Helium in their

cores, releasing energy that we see as light and heat. When they run out of Hydrogen,
the core contracts and heats up to then fuse Helium, and the outer layers expand and
cool; it becomes a Red Giant. Eventually it has no more fuel that it can burn, and it blows
off its atmosphere, which forms a Planetary Nebula, and the core remains - a White
Dwarf, the cinders of a star cooling slowly.
If the star is very massive the end is much more spectacular. It can fuse elements
together until it the ed product of these reactions is Iron. To fuse iron requires energy
rather than releasing it, and so an iron core is built up in the star. Eventually the core
looses its battle against gravity, it can no longer support itself and collapses until it is as
dense as an atomic nucleus. It then rebounds and blasts the star apart in a Supernova
explosion. The outer layers of the star are expelled into space and form a Supernova
Remnant. What is left of the centre of the star is either a neutron star or a black hole.
The outer layers of the star travel outwards much faster the speed of sound; they are a
blast or shock wave. This compresses the tenuous gas in between the stars (the Inter
Stellar Medium, ISM) which causes the emission of X-rays. The remnants of these blasts
are some of the most beautiful objects in the night sky. The Crab Nebula in the
constellation of Taurus is what is left of a star that went supernova in 1054 and was
observed by the Chinese.

The X-rays that come from the central remnant of the Supernova cause the elements in the
expanding gas shell to fluoresce. Different elements show up at different energies, which allows the
composition of the gas shell and also the star to be estimated.

Crab Supernova remnant (left) - three colour image with X-ray in blue, optical in green, and radio
in red.
Cassiopeia (right) A Supernova remnant as seen in visible light.

Black holes :

Stellar mass black holes are formed when a massive star

explodes in a Supernova. A black hole is something that is so massive that even light
cannot escape its surface. When astronomers talk about a black hole, they usually mean
the Schwarzschild Radius, beyond which nothing can escape. As no light can escape from
a black hole we cannot see them directly; however they have an effect on anything that
comes too close. If the black hole formed in a binary star system, then the other
companion star will still be in orbit around the black hole (technically their common
centre of mass). What is then observed is the companion star "wobbling" around some
point in space. The black hole will also "suck" in matter from the region around it. As it is
very massive, its gravity pulls things in. Most things in space spin - for example galaxies,
stars and planets - and so when things are falling towards the black hole they begin to
swirl around it, like bath water around a plug-hole. Different parts of the material orbit
around the black hole a different speeds and so they rub against one-another and
become hot from friction. As the material is moving very fast by the time it is close to the
black hole it is very hot and so emits X-rays.
Larger black holes are found at the centre of most galaxies, these as millions if not
billions of times as massive as our Sun. They are too far away to be seen directly, but
they have to be there because they are the only things that are known about that can
explain what is seen. There is good evidence for a black hole at the centre of the Milky
Way as stars are orbiting around something that has to be very massive in a small
volume. The only thing that can form with this density is a black hole. Using the Doppler
effect at the centres of other galaxies it seems as if black holes are there as well - the
stars and gas are moving too fast for it to be anything else. Some of the black holes at
the centres of galaxies are real monsters and are performing some of the most extreme
physics known to man.

Sagittarius A : The supermassive black hole at the

center of the Milky Way , seen by the Chandra X-ray

X-Ray Binaries :

As the name suggests these are binary systems which

emit large amounts of X-rays. These were among the first X-ray sources to be discovered
(apart from the Sun and other Solar System sources) as they are relatively close as there
are many in the Milky Way. Sco X-1 and Cygnus X-1 were the first X-ray sources to be
discovered in the constellations of Scorpius and Cygnus respectively and they are both Xray binaries.
There are two different types of X-ray Binaries - High Mass (HMXB) and Low Mass (LMXB),
and they have different properties
High Mass X-ray Binaries form two stars of different mass which are in orbit around each
other. The more massive one evolves faster and reaches the end of its life first, after a
few million years or so. It becomes a giant and the outer layers are lost to its companion.
Then it explodes in a supernova leaving behind either a neutron star or a black hole. This
can disrupt the binary system, but if the star that exploded was less massive than its
companion when it exploded then the systems will remain in tact, though the orbits may
be more eccentric. The companion star then comes to the end of its life and swells to
form a giant. It then looses its outer layers onto the neutron star or black hole. This is the
HMXB phase. The material forms an accretion disc around the compact object, which
heats up because of friction. This heating, combined with jets that can be formed by the
black hole, cause the X-ray emission. Eventually the companion star comes to the end of
its life, leaving a neutron star/black hole - white dwarf/neutron star/black hole binary,
depending on the initial masses of the stars. Cygnus X-1 is this type of X-ray Binary. They
are bright in X-rays not only because of the accretion disc, but also because there is a
corona which is much more powerful than the Sun's corona. Cygnus X-1 is 10,000 times
more powerful than the Sun, and most of it is powered by the gravity caused by the black

An artists impression of GRS 1915 which is thought to be an X-ray binary. The

black hole sucks material off the companion star, which is heated by friction,
emitting X-rays. Picture by Rob Hynes.

Low Mass X-ray Binaries

have a less clear origin. The most likely

explanation is that they form by capture, the lone compact object, the remnant of a
massive star, has a close interaction in a cluster and picks up a companion. The mass
transfer on to the compact object is much slower and more controlled. This mass transfer
can spin up a neutron star so that it is a millisecond pulsar, spinning thousands of times a
second. Low Mass X-ray Binaries tend to emit X-rays in bursts and transients and there
could be many more present in our galaxy than we see, but which are currently switched
off. They also tend to have softer spectra (they emit lower energy X-rays), whereas the
HMXB's have harder spectra (more energetic X-rays).
Images of the globular clusters and the centre of our galaxy show that there are many Xray binaries in our galaxy. They appear as the point sources in the image below, which is
of the centre of our galaxy. This image of the centre of our galaxy also shows the source
Sagittarius A*, which is the super massive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.
In X-ray binaries where the compact object is a Neutron Star, rather than a black hole, the
material which falls from the giant star onto the neutron star builds up on the surface.
Eventually there is enough material there for it to "burn" like at the centre of a star, and
this causes the largest visible thermonuclear flash. The X-ray emission from the X-ray
binary can go up by a factor of ten, and then it decays back down again.

CHANDRA image of the centre of the Milky Way. The small point sources are mostly
X-ray binaries in our own galaxy. The super massive black hole at the centre of the
Galaxy is located inside the bright white patch in the centre of the image. The
colours indicate X-ray energy bands - red (low), green (medium), and blue (high).
Click for a labelled version.