In the theory of classical electromagnetism, accelerating electric charges emit electromagnetic waves. In the most common terrestrial source of X-rays, the X-ray tube, a beam of high-energy electrons impinges on a solid target. As the fast-moving electrons in the beam interact with the electrons and nuclei of the target atoms, they are repeatedly deflected and slowed. During this abrupt deceleration, the beam electrons emit bremsstrahlung (German: “braking radiation”)—a continuous spectrum of electromagnetic radiation with peak intensity in the X-ray region.
Most of the energy radiated in an X-ray tube is contained in this continuous spectrum. Far more powerful (and far larger) sources of a continuum of X-rays are synchrotron particle accelerators and storage rings. In a synchrotron, charged particles (usually electrons or positrons) are accelerated to very high energies (typically billions of electron volts) and then confined to a closed orbit by strong magnets. When the charged particles are deflected by the magnetic fields (and hence accelerated via the change in their direction of motion), they emit so-called synchrotron radiation—a continuum whose intensity and frequency distribution are determined by the strength of the magnetic fields and the energy of the circulating particles. Specially designed synchrotron light sources are used worldwide for X-ray studies of materials.
In an X-ray tube, in addition to the continuous spectrum of radiation emitted by the decelerating electrons, there is also a spectrum of discrete X-ray emission lines that is characteristic of the target material. This “characteristic radiation” results from the excitation of the target atoms by collisions with the fast-moving electrons. Most commonly, a collision first causes a tightly bound inner-shell electron to be ejected from the atom; a loosely bound outer-shell electron then falls into the inner shell to fill the vacancy. In the process, a single photon is emitted by the atom with an energy equal to the difference between the inner-shell and outer-shell vacancy states. This energy difference usually corresponds to photon wavelengths in the X-ray region of the spectrum. Characteristic X-ray radiation can also be produced from a target material when it is exposed to a primary X-ray beam. In this case, the primary X-ray photons initiate the sequence of electron transitions that result in the emission of secondary X-ray photons.
In 1913 the English physicist Henry Moseley discovered a simple relationship between the wavelengths of the X-ray emission lines from a target and the atomic number of the target element—the wavelengths are inversely proportional to the square of the atomic number. Known as Moseley’s law, this relationship proved to be a definitive tool in the determination of atomic numbers in the early days of atomic physics. X-ray fluoresence techniques, in which the wavelengths of characteristic X-rays are recorded following the excitation of a target, are now commonly used to identify the elemental constituents of materials.
X-ray emission is sometimes a by-product of a nuclear transformation. In the process of electron capture, an inner-shell atomic electron is captured by the atomic nucleus, initiating the transformation of a nuclear proton into a neutron and lowering the atomic number by one unit (see radioactivity: Types of radioactivity). The vacant inner-shell orbit is then quickly filled by an outer-shell electron, producing a characteristic X-ray photon. The relaxation of an excited nucleus to a lower-energy state also sometimes results in the emission of an X-ray photon. However, the photons emitted in most nuclear transitions of this type are of even higher energy than X-rays—they fall into the gamma-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Many astronomical sources of X-rays have been discovered over the past 50 years; collectively they are a rich resource of information about the universe (see X-ray sources). X-rays are emitted by the Sun’s hot corona (outer atmosphere) and by the coronas of other ordinary stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Many binary star systems emit copious X-rays; the strongest such sources produce, in the X-ray region alone, more than 1,000 times the entire energy output of the Sun. Supernova remnants are also strong sources of X-rays, which are sometimes associated with synchrotron radiation produced by high-energy charged particles circulating in intense magnetic fields and sometimes with atomic emissions from extremely hot gases (in the range of 10 million kelvins). Powerful extragalactic sources of X-rays, including active galaxies, quasars, and galactic clusters, are currently under intense scientific scrutiny; in some cases, the exact mechanisms of X-ray production are still uncertain or unknown. As the Earth’s atmosphere strongly absorbs X-rays, astronomical observations in the X-ray region must be made from orbiting satellites. The launch of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory in 1999 greatly advanced the observational capabilities of X-ray astronomy (see telescope: X-ray telescopes).