What is an X-Ray Telescope?

Mary McMahon

An X-ray telescope is a telescope designed to detect emissions of energy in the X-ray spectrum. This area of the spectrum involves high frequency, short wavelength energy with a number of intriguing properties. In astronomy, X-rays are of interest because they are associated with areas of hot gas and high energy, and can provide important information about activities in celestial bodies in many areas of the sky, including star formation and star life cycles.

Some space telescopes can detect X-rays.
Some space telescopes can detect X-rays.

The first X-ray telescopes were developed and used in the 1960s. A number of challenges have presented themselves to researchers working in X-ray astronomy, starting with interference from the Earth. It is not possible to make reliable X-ray observations from the Earth's surface, forcing scientists to launch telescopes on rockets and satellites to collect data. In addition, specialized mirrors are needed to successfully reflect and focus X-rays in a this type of telescope. As technology has improved, researchers have been able to make more accurate and detailed observations, picking up even very faint X-ray energy as it moves through space.

X-ray telescopes collect information about solar activity and make predictions about solar flares.
X-ray telescopes collect information about solar activity and make predictions about solar flares.

Data from an X-ray telescope can be represented in a number of ways. This area of the spectrum is not visible, but X-rays can be plotted on a visual chart with color or shading codes to reflect intensity, providing information about the concentration of activity in space. The data can also be represented numerically. Researchers study a wide variety of phenomena in space with the assistance of X-ray telescopes, along with telescopes designed to seek out other areas of the non-visible spectrum.

Images made with X-ray telescopes can be found in textbooks and are also sometimes reproduced in the news if they are believed to be of general public interest. One very common use of the X-ray telescope is in observations of solar activity, used to collect information about the sun in general and also to make projections about solar flares and other events that may impact weather on Earth. The sun is highly active, producing a wealth of material for examination and study within the scientific community.

Researchers interested in making observations with an X-ray telescope can work with scientific agencies that launch or maintain such telescopes for research purposes. By agreement, many members of the physics community cooperate on observations with expensive technology like X-ray telescopes, giving as many people as possible an opportunity to make observations and collect data for their work.

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