X-ray astronomy

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X-ray astronomy is an observational branch of astronomy which deals with the study of X-ray emission from celestial objects. X-radiation is absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere, so instruments to detect X-rays must be taken to high altitude by balloons, sounding rockets, and satellites. X-ray astronomy is part of space science.

X-ray emission is expected in sources which contain an extremely hot gas at temperatures from a million to hundred million kelvins. In general, this occurs in objects where the atoms and/or electrons have a very high energy. The discovery of the first cosmic X-ray source in 1962 came as a surprise. This source is called Scorpius X-1, the first X-ray source found in the constellation Scorpius. Based on discoveries in this new field, Riccardo Giacconi received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002. It was found that the X-ray emission of Sco X-1 was 10,000 times greater than its optical emission, based on a precise location obtained with a modulation collimator - a specific type of coded aperture imager. In addition, the energy output in X-rays is 100,000 times greater than the total emission of the Sun in all wavelengths. It is now known that such X-ray sources are compact stars, such as neutron stars and black holes (in which case the material that falls into the black hole emits the x-rays, not the black hole itself). The energy source is gravity. Gas is heated by the fall in the strong gravitational field of celestial objects.

Many thousands of X-ray sources are known. In addition, it appears that the space between galaxies in a cluster of galaxies is filled with a very hot, but very dilute gas at a temperature between 10 and 100 megakelvins (MK). The total amount of hot gas is five to ten times the total mass in the visible galaxies.


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