X-ray and laboratory astrophysics

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore perform experiments using laboratory facilities and space-based observatories to address fundamental questions in x-ray astrophysics.

Developing and applying high-resolution x-ray spectroscopy

X rays from astrophysical objects provide a view into some of nature’s most violent and extreme environments. Telescopes sensitive to the x-ray waveband (0.1−100 kiloelectronvolts, or keV) provide unique probes of accreting black holes and the warped spacetime around them, clusters of galaxies—the universe’s most massive gravitational potential wells—and the growth and evolution of galaxies.

To unravel the physics governing these sources, researchers not only want to take images in the x-ray band, but they also want to know the precise energy of every photon in the image. Imaging spectroscopy allows the use of spectroscopic plasma diagnostics to learn details about these systems, such as their temperature, velocity, composition, and mass distributions.

At LLNL, we have been working to advance x-ray spectroscopic capabilities and the associated plasma diagnostics for astronomy for several decades. Our team works on instrument development and science teams for x-ray astrophysics missions and leads x-ray laboratory astrophysics investigations. Our work receives funding from the NASA Astrophysics research program to support the general x-ray astrophysics community, and is funded directly to support the X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM), an x-ray observatory that will launch in 2023, and the Athena X-ray Integral Field Unit (X-IFU).

Researchers near a high-resolution grating spectrometer
Left to right: Harrison Flores-Alimboyoguen, Antonia Hubbard, Ed Magee, Greg Brown, and Megan Eckart near a high-resolution grating spectrometer used to record high-resolution low-energy spectra from the LLNL electron beam ion trap.

Our work in x-ray astrophysics at LLNL falls into several overlapping areas:

Laboratory astrophysics experiments at the LLNL electron beam ion trap (EBIT) facility and at other facilities worldwide

Instrument development and calibration for future astrophysics missions, including XRISM and Athena

Observational astrophysics using existing observatories

Space mission concept development

Benchmarking spectral modeling code to enable precision measurements

Our laboratory astrophysics program centers around LLNL’s electron beam ion trap (EBIT) facility, which currently includes the EBIT-I and SuperEBIT. Invented and developed by LLNL researchers, EBIT allows high-accuracy measurements of x-ray emission from isolated, highly charged ions to derive atomic physics parameters needed for the interpretation of complex spectra. It operates in the coronal density limit, with electron densities of about 5 x 1011 per cubic centimeter. These conditions are perfectly suited for astrophysics-related studies.

LLNL’s EBIT facility has a full suite of x-ray and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) spectrometers to aid in diagnosing the trap conditions and measuring the photon emission from the trapped ions. The instruments include grating and crystal spectrometers for very high resolution (about 0.1 eV) measurements, as well as microcalorimeter spectrometers for moderate resolution (about 5 eV) with a broad waveband.

Our laboratory astrophysics measurements help benchmark the leading spectral modeling packages used by the high-energy astrophysics community, such as:

  • The Atomic Database for Astrophysicists (AtomDB), maintained at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA)
  • SPEX, maintained at the Netherlands Institute for Space Science (SRON)
  • CHIANTI, maintained at the University of Michigan, George Mason University, the University of Cambridge, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  • CLOUDY, maintained at the University of Kentucky
EBIT facility
The LLNL EBIT facility. The EBIT is in the center, with radial ports for spectrometers to study light emitted by the plasma. Technician Harrison Flores-Alimboyoguen performs a cryogen fill on the calorimeter spectrometer. The instrument at the front right is a high-resolution x-ray grating spectrometer.

LLNL scientists are actively engaged with the astrophysics community to address high-priority questions and with the teams at CfA, SRON, and other institutions to ensure the measurements are properly incorporated into the databases and spectral modeling codes.

Lawrence Livermore is home to many students and visiting researchers from institutions around the world who perform experiments at the EBIT facility. We also partner with researchers to perform laboratory astrophysics experiments at other facilities, including experiments coupling portable EBITs to synchrotrons and free-electron lasers.

Developing and calibrating microcalorimeter instruments for space-based astronomy

The coming generation of astrophysical x-ray missions, such as XRISM and Athena, will deploy arrays of x-ray microcalorimeters—a type of x-ray detector that operates at low temperature (50 mK) and is designed for high-energy resolution—to provide imaging spectroscopy. These detectors have an unprecedented combination of high spectral resolution and high quantum efficiency over a broad energy range (0.1–20 keV).

The EBIT facility is home to microcalorimeter spectrometers built by our colleagues at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and used at LLNL for laboratory measurements. Conversely, Lawrence Livermore researchers are members of instrument teams developing microcalorimeter instruments for space missions, including Resolve on XRISM and the X-IFU on Athena.

Examples of our research activities include:

  • Developing and deploying x-ray generating equipment for ground calibration.
    • We refurbished and deployed an EBIT for Resolve calibration and are designing and building a more capable EBIT for X-IFU calibration. X-ray emission from highly charged ions produced in EBITs, such as helium-like oxygen and helium-like neon, provides a significant improvement in accuracy over characteristic lines produced by standard x-ray tubes often used for calibration purposes.
    • We are developing optimized crystal and grating x-ray monochromators for X-IFU ground calibration.
  • Supporting detector performance and calibration campaigns, from component-level laboratory testing to on-spacecraft system tests to in-orbit commissioning.
  • Using DOE facilities such as synchrotron light sources to calibrate thin-film filters and x-ray absorbers.
  • Working with software development teams to implement algorithms and incorporate calibration results for mission data processing software.

Observational astrophysics

Our researchers are engaged in observational astrophysics projects using Chandra and XMM-Newton and are preparing for the launch of XRISM. Our scientists lead target teams for observations to be made during the performance verification phase of the XRISM mission in 2023. We contribute to novel observations using payloads flown on sounding rockets, most recently the Micro-X Sounding Rocket.

LLNL expertise in x-ray plasma physics, atomic physics, and instrumentation position researchers to make key contributions to astrophysics using these new windows into the universe.

Instruments and techniques serving a dual purpose

Many of the high-resolution x-ray spectrometers at the LLNL EBIT facility have counterparts deployed to facilities around the world. In fact, several of these dispersive spectrometers were originally designed for magnetic fusion energy devices or high-energy-density laser experiments, calibrated using EBIT before being deployed, and then copied with minor modifications to enhance the laboratory astrophysics investigations at LLNL. Conversely, our group is working to adapt x-ray microcalorimeter spectrometers originally developed for astrophysics and in use for the last two decades at the EBIT facility to transform x-ray diagnostic capabilities for magnetic fusion energy experiments. Our team recently deployed the XRS/EBIT microcalorimeter spectrometer to the Madison Symmetric Torus (MST) at University of Wisconsin–Madison.


Name Title Discipline


Institution People Area
UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) Peter Beiersdorfer (LLNL ret.), Ming Feng Gu Laboratory astrophysics, Flexible atomic code (FAC)
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center X-ray calorimeter group, X-ray astrophysics laboratory Laboratory astrophysics; XRISM Resolve and Athena X-IFU development and calibration, microcalorimeter systems, Micro-X
University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Dr. Karl Remeis-Sternwarte Astronomical Institute Joern Wilms group Laboratory astrophysics, observational astrophysics
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics High-Energy Astrophysics Division Laboratory astrophysics, AtomDB, X-ray probe mission concept
RIKEN High Energy Astrophysics Laboratory, Makoto Sawada Laboratory astrophysics, XRISM Resolve
University of Wisconsin–Madison Dan McCammon’s X-ray astrophysics group Microcalorimeter data processing, XRISM Resolve, sounding rockets
University of Wisconsin–Madison Wisconsin Plasma Physics Laboratory, Daniel Den Hartog Laboratory astrophysics using microcalorimeter on the Madison Symmetric Torus
Northwestern University Tali Figueroa group Micro-X sounding rocket experiment
Japanese Aeronautics and Space Administration (JAXA) Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), and collaborating institutions in Japan XRISM Resolve
National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), France Directorate of Orbital Systems and Applications, Science of the Universe Division Athena X-IFU
Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP), France Galaxies, High Energy Astrophysics, and Cosmology (GAHEC) Athena X-IFU, laboratory astrophysics
Max-Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics José Crespo López-Urrutia group Laboratory astrophysics
Columbia University Daniel Savin group Laboratory astrophysics

Select publications

For a complete list of related papers since 2010, see our ADS library.