The discovery of x-rays in 1895 marked

The discovery of x-rays in
1895 marked not only a dawn for the scientific understanding of human anatomy
and physiology, but also the future of exploration of our galaxy. Nearly
seventy years after Roentgen’s imaging breakthrough, scientists would be
utilizing his science in the field of x-ray astronomy to explore the nature of
our galaxy and the fundamental physics of our universe. X-ray astronomy emerged
as a scientific field in the early twentieth century and would see a rapid
development which not only would lend insight into our rapidly expanding
universe, but also parallel the development and utilization of medical and
diagnostic x-rays.

The exploration of galactic
sources of x-ray electromagnetic energy began in the mid-1900s and would
continue to develop and progress as a noteworthy field to modern day. The
development of the scientific field of x-ray astronomy can be traced back to
the early 1960s when scientists first began studying astronomical objects via
x-ray and gamma ray energies. Perhaps one of the first groups associated with
the study of celestial emission of x-rays was a small, private research
corporation in Cambridge, MA. The American Science and Engineering Group
(AS) started work in 1959 to investigate theoretical and experimental
possibilities for x-ray astronomy. A group of scientists, including the Nobel
Prize winning astrophysicist Ricardo Giacconi, published “A Brief Review of
Experimental and Theoretical Progress in X-ray Astronomy” which sought to
estimate expected x-ray changes from celestial sources, utilizing the sun as a
base measurement for other considered sources. From there, the group began to
run experiments designed to detect sources of X-ray at increasing
sensitivities. Because celestial sources give off a bulk of
their energy in the 0.5 – 5 keV range, the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs the
majority of those waves before they reach the surface of the planet.
Subsequently, the advancement of x-ray astronomy hinged on the development of
rocket and satellite instrumentation.  This experimentation led to the detection of
the first stellar x-ray source, Scorpious X-1, on June 12, 1962. In the decade
following the original detection of celestial x-ray energies, the development
of x-ray astronomy continued at an amazing pace. The 1970s saw the discovery of
x-ray binaries (classes of stars luminous in x-ray), detectors increasing in
sensitivity which better allowed astronomers to measure the mass of neutron
stars, information supporting the existence of black holes, and the
determination of spin rates of neutron stars. Tracking and recording galactic
x-ray emissions was allowing scientists to gather previously unimagined
information regarding our galaxy and its composition. Modern literature
regarding x-ray astronomy consistently notes that, over the course of the last
half-century, the equipment for x-ray astronomical observations has “improved
in sensitivity by more than nine order of magnitude.” To understand the
significance of that improvement, one may consider the capability of the naked
eye in comparison to that of a 10-meter telescope. Today, X-ray astronomy has
developed into an entirely new field. The exploration of cosmic x-rays is so
vital to our understanding of the galaxy that there exists a NASA project specifically
to detect x-ray emissions from the Universe. The Chandra X-ray telescope,
hosted by the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge was launched
in 1999 and since then has operated to receive, process, and distribute
information from the hot regions of the Universe, such as exploded stars,
clusters of galaxies, and matter around black holes. The data collected from
both Chandra and the host of satellites active from the 1980s to the early 2000s
serves to provide astronomers with information regarding celestial emissions of
x-rays. The importance in this x-ray data can be seen in how it sheds like on
the fundamental physics of our universe. It furthers our understanding of the
sources and mechanisms by which the x-rays (and gamma rays) are emitted.
Collecting this information is important for scientists to begin to address
questions such as how our universe began, how it is evolving, and theoretically
gaining insight into its eventual fate.

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The importance of x-ray
astronomy lies within the ability of celestial x-ray data to illuminate and aid
in our knowledge regarding distant cosmic bodies. Through studying the x-ray
wavelengths emitted by these objects, we can further our understanding about
their processes and compositions. High-energy processes are dominant in the
dynamics and evolution of the Universe, as seen with nuclear decay and
theoretically, “the Big Bang.” When high-energy processes take place, x-rays
are emitted. Therefore, x-rays “furnish us a particularly good tool to study
those processes.” The importance and utilization of x-ray astronomy can be
broken down into three general categories; analytical, theoretical, and
explorational. Analytical x-ray astronomy can be considered as the application
of x-rays records to an astronomy puzzle in an attempt to provide an acceptable
solution. For example, scientists record the emissions of neutron stars or
black holes over time to study the temporal behavior of these high energy
bodies on different time scales. Studying these emissions and using preexisting
data allows scientists to create models and “plug numbers” as a way of
answering big, universal questions. Theoretical x-ray astronomy is perhaps a
“step before” analytical, in which a “wide variety of tools are used to
approximate the behavior of a possible x-ray source,” which can then be
compared to the experimental or analytical observations. Scientists use what
they know and what records exist in essence to create hypotheses. The use in
these abstractions is to rationalize, explain, and most often predict natural
phenomena. Finally, explorational x-ray astronomy involves, as the title
suggests using tools to explore the universe through means of x-ray astronomy.
An example of “tools” is utilizing satellites carrying x-ray detectors
recording x-ray emissions to act as survey missions. Regardless of which branch
one chooses to recognize, x-ray astronomy serves as a field in which scientists
are allowed to study universal events in which the total energy expended is
extremely high, such as supernova explosions, emissions by active galactic
nuclei or interaction of relativistic electrons with magnetic or photon fields. “Our
eyes have evolved to respond to a narrow range of wavelengths which are
transmitted by the Earth’s atmosphere…Natural physical processes, however, give
rise to characteristic radiations in a very much wider range of wavelengths.” The natural evolution of stars and galaxies occurs primarily
within the x-ray range of shorter wavelengths in which, because gases are being
heated to 10 to 100 million degrees, the protons and electrons of these bodies
are being accelerated to very high energies. The development of x-ray astronomy
is important in the way that it allows scientists to view and conceptualize
remote objects in the x-ray spectrum, especially in learning how these now
observable high-energy phenomena play roles in the dynamics of the universe. The importance of x-rays in exploration is not
exclusive to astronomy.

X-Rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation with energy
wavelengths much shorter and with higher frequency than visible light. The
production of those x-rays occurs both artificially and naturally. When one
considers x-rays both in the field of diagnostic imaging and in the field of
astronomy, it becomes apparent that there will be similarities and differences
in understanding and application. Perhaps the most apparent difference between
the two modalities is how their respective x-ray systems are comprised. Medical
x-ray imaging is based on energy in the form of x-ray photons that interact
with tissue and an image receptor. Buschong states in his text, “The medical
imaging system has three principle components: the operating console, the x-ray
tube, and the high voltage generator.” Those components are absent in x-ray
astronomy, with the celestial body itself acting solely as the source of
electromagnetic energies. Another way to compare the mechanics of diagnostics
to astronomy is to consider the imaging machine in two parts: the source and
the camera. In medical imaging, x-ray machines consist of these two parts. To
create an image, the anatomy of interest will be put in between the source
(tube) and the camera. The x-ray tube will illuminate the film uniformly,
subsequently providing a smooth background upon which the anatomy is displayed.
In x-ray astronomy, there is obviously much more space between those two ends
of the system. Rather than having a mechanical source, the cosmic object acts
as the source and emits the x-rays. A satellite or some other instrument carrying
a detector typically represents the camera in the case of x-ray astronomy. For
example, Chandra acts as the camera and collects and records the x-rays that
hit it. “A Chandra X-ray image…gives an idea of how the galaxy is emitting
X-rays, just like a photograph of the galaxy at visible wavelengths gives an
idea of how the galaxy is emitting visible light.” Due to the aforementioned
distance to be considered in x-ray astronomy, there are additional considerations
to be made for what the x-ray source will be hitting en route to the camera. In
diagnostics, we must consider “artifacts” and be cognizant of what is present
in our imaging field so those artifacts can be removed in the interest of image
quality. “Chandra, however, can act like an X-ray machine and reveal
information about what’s between the source and the camera. Space is not empty,
and there’s bound to be material between us and a distant X-ray source…instead
of blocking all the x-rays (like bones in a medical X-ray) these intervening
objects usually absorb only particular wavelengths of X-ray radiation. By
separating the X-ray light from the source into its component wavelengths and
examining these absorption bands, we can learn about the matter between us and
the X-ray source.” For the differences one can draw between diagnostic imaging
and x-ray astronomy, there still remains clear similarities, which is certainly
not surprising. The primary similarity between diagnostic x-radiation and x-ray
astronomy is that both fields are interested in using electromagnetic radiation
for the purpose of discovery. The purpose of diagnostic imaging is to utilize
electromagnetic waves to noninvasively image that with which we can typically
cannot see with the naked eye. Rather than dissecting patients to diagnose and
treat them, x-rays allow us to produce images of the internal structures of the
human body. In the same vein, the purpose of x-ray astronomy is to utilize
celestial x-ray sources to “view” structures that we cannot perceive with the
naked eye. As previously state, by studying the x-ray waves emitted from
celestial bodies thousands of lightyears away, astronomers are able to study
their compositional matter and processes, similar to how, through utilizing
medical imaging, we are able to study the composition, matter, and processes of
the human body.  “By separating the X-ray
light from the source into its component wavelengths and examining these
absorption bands, we can learn about the matter between us and the X-ray
source.” Whether that matter is anatomical or otherwise, x-rays serve to
investigate substance. In an interview conducted on The Science Show with Alyssa Goodman, Director of the Initiative in
Innovative Computing and Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University, the case
was made that the fields of diagnostic imaging and x-ray astronomy parallel one
another quite significantly. In her interview, Goodman states that “medical
imaging generally has a lot in common with astronomical imagery –apart from the
scale.” The team responsible for building the high-resolution camera for
Chandra, was also responsible for a “spin-off from that which is used in the
medical centre at Nottingham.” The implication of shared engineering teams
furthers the notion that the development of cosmic imaging equipment matches
medical imaging equipment. Due to the reflection and similarities in
technology, the argument continues that the development of additional or
adjacent imaging techniques would also be similar. In one field as well as the
other, more information is preferred, which then leads to the discussion of
multimodal imaging, “different kinds of images you want to combine.” In medical
imaging, there exists CT scans, X-rays, and MRI to name a few. When the images
from these modalities are joined together, the diagnostics become much more
thorough in a way that astronomers seek to achieve by combing x-ray data with optical
and radio data. According to Goodman, in seeking to advance x-ray astronomy,
“all that really matters is that you can get three-dimensional data the same
way you do in medical imaging…” X-rays in both medical imaging and x-ray
astronomy can be seen as a first step through a door into imaging. Ultimately,
in any scientific field, the main objective for researchers is to accrue more
information. The purpose of medical imaging and x-ray astronomy, through
different means, is to explore and offer society as a whole more information.

In conclusion, the discovery
of x-rays has lent to a history of scientific progress. By recording these
electromagnetic beams, scientists in many areas are able to explore to
boundaries beyond the naked eye. Through continuously developing
instrumentation, scientists in both medical and astronomical fields are able to
record x-rays and subsequently examine bodies both anatomic and celestial.
Though there are many differences in the ways in which x-rays are created and
processed, one can also see the ways in which they are similar,
developmentally, etc. Overall, the discovery of x-rays in 1895 marked a
significant advancement in how scientists would not only observe themselves,
but the greater universe around them. 


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