Scattered Light: Inverse Compton Scattering and Coronal Hard X-ray Sources

From RHESSI Wiki

Jump to: navigation, search

Number: 157
1st Author: B. Chen
2nd Author: T. S. Bastian
Published: 17 July 2011
Next Nugget: Two-stage SEE Shows Reconnection
Previous Nugget: HXR and WL Emission Heights
List all



Hard X-ray (HXR) emission from solar flares typically comes from the lowest parts of the solar atmosphere (see earlier Nuggets such as this one). Truly coronal HXR emission has also been (rarely) observed since the early 1970s, but there has been renewed interest in these sources with the availability of HXR imaging and spectroscopy via Yohkoh/HXT and now of course RHESSI. In most cases, these coronal HXR sources can be explained by non-thermal bremsstrahlung emission. However, there are some cases where the source parameters required by the bremsstrahlung model can be extreme. For example, in a recently reported case [1] the interpretation of the coronal HXR source in terms of simple bremsstrahlung emission implies that all of the electrons in the source must have been accelerated to energies >16 keV. In other cases the spectral index of the HXR spectrum of the continuum γ-ray sources approaches its theoretical limit, an unexpected property that would be hard to explain. Motivated by these cases, we have explored the viability of inverse Compton scattering (ICS) as an alternative mechanism to non-thermal bremsstrahlung (see an earlier Nugget for more explanation).

This mechanism has been in the news recently because of the Fermi discovery of ICS from highly relativistic cosmic-ray electrons penetrating the solar corona.

Figure 1: A part of the sky seen at high energies by the [1] satellite observatory, as presented by APOD. The bright parts of the image are the plane of our galaxy, and the streak shows emission from the vicinity of the Sun, explained as ICS from cosmic-ray electrons, as the Earth's motion carries the Sun around the sky.

ICS Emission in the Ultra- and Mildly-relativistic Regimes

Ultra-relativistic electrons with energies from 10s to 100s MeV are known to be produced during powerful flares; these are capable of up-scattering soft photospheric photons to HXR/γ-ray energies via inverse Compton scattering (ICS). Previously overlooked is the fact that mildly relativistic electrons (100s keV to a few MeV), generally produced in much greater numbers in flares of all sizes, can up-scatter EUV/SXR photons to HXR energies. In addition, anisotropic electron populations are also known to exist in solar flares. Electron anisotropies can strongly affect both the ICS emissivity and spectrum, making this mechanism particularly interesting theoretically.

Our results can be summarized as follows: first, ICS of an anisotropic photon field on an isotropic, power-law energy distribution (index δ) of ultra-relativistic electrons yields a power-law HXR photon spectrum with an index (δ+1)/2, consistent with previous studies. Figure 2 shows some of the calculations. The emission is enhanced relative to ICS by isotropic photons by a factor ~4π/Ω, where Ω is the solid angle of the photon distribution. Second, the spectral index of the HXR photon spectrum resulting from ICS of EUV/SXR photons on mildly relativistic electrons is significantly steeper than (δ+1)/2. Third, ICS of photons on an anisotropic electron distribution can yield significant changes to the photon spectrum. In the ultra-relativistic regime: i) a collimated electron beam yields enhancements to the emissivity of several orders of magnitude over the isotropic case, and the spectral index is harder: (δ−1)/2; ii) an electron beam with a finite angular dispersion yields an emissivity that is enhanced by ~2 orders of magnitude over the isotropic case, but the spectral index reverts to (δ+1)/2; iii) a “pancake” electron distribution yields enhancements of roughly an order of magnitude and the index is again (δ+1)/2. ICS on anisotropic distributions of mildly relativistic electrons is qualitatively similar to the ultra-relativistic case, but the photon spectral indices are again steeper than the relativistic case. In addition, the spectrum is more complex than the simple power law resulting from the ultra-relativistic case. It is better characterized as a broken power law that is harder at low photon energies and softer at higher photon energies.

Figure 2: Left: up-scattered photon spectra at the Sun (photons per keV per second per electron) from anisotropic electron distributions along the line of sight in the ultra-relativistic regime. Right: up-scattered photon spectra at the Sun (photons per keV per second per electron) from a beamed electron distribution along the line of sight in the mildly relativistic regime. See the full paper for full details.

Application to Coronal HXR Sources

We have considered whether ICS represents a viable alternative to non-thermal bremsstrahlung emission for a number of specific observations of coronal HXR and continuum γ−ray sources. In the case of the continuum, flat-spectrum, γ−ray sources produced by the powerful flares (ref. [2]) we find that ICS in the ultra-relativistic regime can account for the observed photon spectrum, in agreement with an earlier study (ref. [3]). In the case of a flare occurring well beyond the limb, so that only its high coronal emission could be detected at Earth, the observed HXR photon spectrum can be understood in terms of either ultra-relativistic or mildly relativistic ICS. For this situation the case involving ultra-relativistic electrons is energetically more favorable. For a "Masuda"-like event (for a description, see this earlier Nugget), we again find that ICS in the ultra-relativistic or mildly relativistic regime can account for the observed HXR photon spectrum although we must appeal to an anisotropic electron distribution if the mildly relativistic electrons are relevant.


Either photospheric or EUV/SXR photons can be up-scattered by energetic electrons to HXR/γ-ray energies via ICS emission during solar flares. Anisotropic ICS emission in both the ultra- and mildly-relativistic regime has been explored. We conclude that for certain coronal HXR/γ-ray sources, ICS emission may be a viable alternative to thin-target bremsstrahlung emission, particularly if the responsible energetic electron distribution is anisotropic. If ICS indeed plays a role in the production of coronal HXR/γ−ray sources, it represents a new opportunity to diagnose the properties of energetic electrons.


[1] Measurements of the Coronal Acceleration Region of a Solar Flare

[2] Coronal γ-Ray Bremsstrahlung from Solar Flare-accelerated Electrons

[3] Inverse Compton X-rays from relativistic flare electrons and positrons

Personal tools