Zooming in on an intriguing neutron star

Neutron stars and black holes are the collapsed remnants of once massive stars that ended their life in a supernova explosion. A defining property of neutron stars and black holes is that their mass is compressed into a very small volume and therefore these stellar corpses are also referred to as compact objects.

One direct consequence of their compactness is that neutron stars and black holes exert immense gravity. When they are part of a binary star system, this allows them to pull off gas from their companion star and swallow this material to their own benefit (e.g. to increase their own mass and spin). This process of mass transfer is called accretion and plays an important role throughout the universe. Understanding exactly how neutron stars and black holes eat, and how much they spit back into space, is therefore a very active area of research.

Accretion onto compact objects leads to the liberation of enormous amounts of gravitational energy, which is carried into space as electromagnetic radiation. Most of the energy is released in the inner part of the gaseous disk that forms around the neutron star or black hole. The temperatures in this part of the disk are billions of degrees Celsius, which implies that the radiation is visible at X-ray wavelengths. For this reason, accreting neutron stars and black holes are called X-ray binaries.

Despite that X-ray binaries radiate most prominently in the X-rays, the cooler parts of their accretion disks emit at ultra-violet (UV), optical and infrared wavelengths, while the material that is blown back into space is typically detected in the radio band. Furthermore, their companion star also emits optical, infrared, and sometimes UV, radiation. Although the accretion in X-ray binaries is typically studied with X-ray telescopes, forming a complete picture of all components involved in the accretion process requires studying X-ray binaries at all wavelengths, from X-ray and UV to optical and infrared, all the way to radio. Such multi-wavelength studies are highly challenging, however, because every different wavelength requires another observatory and the data acquisition, reduction and analysis techniques are widely different.

In an effort to elucidate the puzzling nature of the intriguing neutron star X-ray binary IGR J17062-6143, we carried out an ambitious multi-wavelength observing campaign. We used three satellites (NuSTAR, XMM-Newton, and the Neil Gehrel’s Swift observatory), as well as two large ground-based telescopes (Gemini South and Magellan) to understand i) if the neutron star in this X-ray binary is stopping the accretion flow with its magnetic field, ii) if part of the accreted gas is blown away in a wind, and iii) if the accretion disk has a size similar to other X-ray binaries or is comparatively small.

Jakob utilized a total of four different X-ray analysis techniques (broad-band X-ray spectral fitting, reflection spectroscopy, high-resolution X-ray spectroscopy and coherent X-ray timing) to zoom in on the properties of the hot inner part of the accretion flow, near the neutron star. Among his main findings are that the inner part of the gas disk does not extend close to the neutron star as is usually the case in X-ray binaries, but is truncated well away from it (question i above). Secondly, he found evidence for an outflowing wind (question ii above), which may be related to the fact that the inner disk is vacated (e.g. the magnetic field of the neutron star may be pushing the gas away and expelling it into a wind). Finally, he found evidence for unusually high abundances of oxygen in the gas surrounding the neutron star. This could indicate that the companion star is very old, which ties in with our other multi-wavelength data analyzed by Juan.

Juan did an amazing job at combining the information from various different wavelengths to understand the size of the accretion disk in IGR J17062-6143 in (question iii above). Fitting the multi-wavelength spectral-energy distribution to accretion models, he found that the gas disk in this X-ray binary must be exceedingly small compared to other systems. In particular, he found that the companion star must be orbiting the neutron star in less than an hour, which implies that the companion must be a very old, small star. Such old stars have lost all their hydrogen and as a result the accretion that they feed has a more exotic chemical composition, which can explain the abundance of oxygen found in Jakob’s X-ray analysis.

X-ray binaries with very small orbits and old companions are called ultra-compact X-ray binaries. Only about a dozen of such systems are known, but their is high desire to find more of them. For instance, characterizing ultra-compact binaries is very important for understanding how binary stars evolve. Furthermore, these systems are expected to emit gravitational waves that should be detectable with future gravitational wave detectors such as LISA.

Our efforts demonstrated the power of multi-wavelength studies to gain a deeper understanding of accretion processes and to find rare, exotic X-ray binaries.

ADS link paper Jakob

ADS link paper Juan


Accumulation of multi-wavelength data for the neutron star X-ray binary IGR J17062-6143. Shown is the spectral-energy distribution that was obtained with three different satellites and two ground-based telescopes. This image is adopted from Juan’s paper.


A new regime to study jets


Accretion is an important physical process in which an astronomical body gravitationally attracts material from its surroundings. This leads to growth and to the release of gravitational energy. We encounter accretion throughout the universe, on many different scales and in widely varying environments. For instance, stars and planets are formed through accretion, and the accretion behavior of a super-massive black hole determines how its host galaxy evolves over time.

Regardless of the nature of the object that is accreting (e.g. star, black hole), or the environment in which accretion occurs, it seems inevitable that part of the attracted material is spit back into space. This occurs to powerful collimated streams called jets. Despite being ubiquitous, exactly how jets are formed and being powered remains a mystery. To understand this, it is key to study jets in different types of accreting systems. This is one of the prime pursuits of modern astrophysics.

Strikingly, the only accreting systems for which jets had never been detected were neutron stars with strong magnetic fields (over a trillion times – a one with twelve zero’s that is – more powerful than the Earth’s magnetic field). This led to the long-standing paradigm that the presence of very strong magnetic field prevent jets from being formed.

Jets from accreting black holes and neutron stars with low magnetic fields (only a billion times the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field, i.e. a one with only nine zero’s) are most commonly detected at radio wavelengths. Despite various searches, radio emission had never been detected from accreting neutron stars with strong magnetic fields. Luckily, the Very Large Array (VLA) radio facility in New Mexico underwent major technical upgrades in recent years that greatly improved its sensitivity. We therefore decided to revisit if strong magnetic field neutron stars truly do not produce radio jets.

Somewhat to our surprise, Jakob made the startling discovery that the two strong-magnetic field neutron stars that we observed with the VLA, the well-studied sources GX 1+4 and Her X-1, were both detected in the radio band (at 8 GHz). While for GX 1+4 the radio properties allow for a different origin than a jet (e.g. shocks in the magnetosphere of the neutron star), the radio properties of Her X-1 can only be explained as being from a jet. It therefore turns out that high-magnetic field neutron stars can launch jets after all. These findings have important implications for understanding jet formation in general. Based on these results we will perform a much larger and systematic radio survey of accreting strongly magnetized neutron stars.

ADS link Her X-1

ADS link GX 1+4

Press release


VLA radio image (9 GHz) of GX 1+4. The cross indicates the position of this high-magnetic neutron star. The color scaling indicates the radio brightness. GX 1+4 is clearly detected.

The devastating impact of X-ray bursts

When plasma falls onto a neutron star it undergoes thermo-nuclear reactions that can cause an extremely energetic explosion called an X-ray burst. Such explosions are extremely common: tens of thousands of X-ray bursts have been recorded to date with different X-ray detectors and on some neutron stars the explosions repeat every few hours.

X-ray bursts occur on neutron stars that are surrounded by a gaseous disk in which material that is pulled off the companion star spirals at increasing speed until it finally plunges into the neutron star. Apart from this accretion disk, a neutron star is also surrounded by a hot plasma, called a corona. The formation and properties of accretion disks are much better understood than that of the corona.

It has long been appreciated that the properties of the accretion flow (i.e. the accretion disk and the corona) affect the observable properties of X-ray bursts such as their peak brightness, duration, recurrence rate and variability properties. However, in recent years evidence for the reverse interaction have been accumulating too: the devastating power of X-rays bursts can destruct the accretion disk and corona that surround the neutron star. Shortly after the surge of energy from the X-ray burst is over, the disk and corona should return to their original status.

Change is always a very powerful diagnostic in astronomy. The destruction and re-formation of accretion disks and coronae in response to an X-ray burst can therefore reveal intriguing new insight in the properties of accretion flows. Given that X-ray bursts are very common, they can thus serve as a powerful, repeating probe to study the poorly known properties of coronae (such as their geometry) and how an accretion disk responds to a sudden shower of intense radiation.

We recently reviewed all the observational evidence for X-ray bursts interacting with the accretion flow. Based on our current understanding of these interactions, we looked ahead and studied how new and concept X-ray missions such as ASTROSAT (launched in 2015), NICER and HXMT (both launched in 2017), eXTP and STROBE-X (mission concepts currently under study) can further this research field. We also proposed various multi-wavelength strategies can be leveraged to learn more about accretion flows using X-ray bursts.

ADS link


Schematic overview of three different possible geometries for the corona in an X-ray binary. The neutron star is indicated as the red ball, the accretion disk as the brown surface, and the corona as the grey structure.

New clues to an old mystery?

MXB 1730-335, also known as “the rapid burster”, is a neutron star that is located in the Galactic globular cluster Liller 1 and swallows gas from a companion star. It is infamous for displaying a peculiar phenomena called type-II X-ray bursts. These brief, bright flashes of X-ray emission are likely caused by a short-lived increase in the amount of gas that falls onto the neutron star, but over 40 years after the discovery the exact nature of these tantalizing X-ray flashes remains unknown. One of the puzzles is that there are only two neutron stars in our entire Galaxy that exhibit these flashes; the other is “the bursting pulsar” GRO J1744-28.

The rapid burster exhibits accretion outbursts that lasts a few weeks and recur about every 100 days. It so happened that in 2015 October an outburst was anticipated at a time that both NuSTAR and XMM-Newton could observe the object. This provided the unique opportunity to leverage the strengths of both instruments — high sensitivity at soft photon energies (0.3-3 keV) for XMM-Newton and high sensitivity to reflection features for NuSTAR — to study this peculiar neutron star. To this end, rapid-burster expert and former Amsterdam/SRON PhD student Tullio Bagnoli designed a novel observing campaign with Swift to catch a new outburst and trigger observations with NuSTAR and XMM-Newton accordingly. Jakob analyzed these data and may have found new clues to the old, unsolved mystery of the origin of type-II X-ray bursts.

Accretion disks normally extend close to the surface of the neutron star. However, analysis of reflected X-ray light in the rapid burster reveals that the inner accretion disk is strongly truncated; it lies about a factor of 5 further away from the neutron star than is typically seen in other objects. A plausible explanation for this finding is that the rapid burster has magnetic field strong enough to prevent the accretion disk from coming closer to the neutron star. Since we obtained a similar result for GRO J1744-28, this could indicate that the type-II phenomenon is related to the magnetic field of the neutron stars.

Paper link: ADS
Press release: ESA
Dutch news article: astronomie.nl


Near-infrared (J,K) images of the Galactic globular cluster Liller 1 obtained with the GeMS camera mounted on the 8-m Gemini telescope in Chile. The inset shows a zoom of the core of the cluster, spanning 1.9 light year across. Image credit: F.R. Ferraro/E. Dalessandro (Cosmic-Lab / University of Bologna, Italy)

A very cool neutron star

HETE J1900.1-2455 is a neutron star that swallows material from a small companion star that a mass of only about 10% of our Sun. It was discovered in 2006 with NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer and exhibits some exceptional properties.

Firstly, HETE J1900.1-2455 showed pulses of X-rays every 2.65 millisecond. This shows that the magnetic field of the neutron star is channeling plasma to its magnetic poles which are then heated and lighting up in X-rays. As the neutron star rotates around its own axis a dazzling 377 times per second, this bundle of X-rays sweeps across our line of sight like a light house. Approximately 10% of all neutron stars with low-mass companions show such X-ray pulsations. Secondly, unlike most neutron stars that are eating for only a few weeks at a time, HETE J1900.1-2455 continued to be active for over a decade. Until 2015…

In 2015 November, HETE J1900.1-2455 suddenly dropped off the radar of the Japanese X-ray detector MAXI, which is mounted on the International Space Station and continuously scans the X-ray sky. The sudden drop of X-ray emission indicated that this neutron star had finally stopped eating. To test this, we observed this neutron star with two X-ray satellites that are more sensitive than MAXI and can thus detected much fainter X-ray light, Chandra and Swift. Our observations were carried out a few months after it had disappeared from the daily MAXI scans.

We found that the neutron star had indeed peacefully gone back to sleep. The X-rays observed during quiescent episodes are usually due to heat that radiated by the neutron star. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that HETE J1900.1-2455 was much colder, about 600 000 degrees Celsius, than we typically see for neutron stars after they have been active for many years (>1 million degrees Celsius). The reason that neutron stars are so hot after long meals is because consuming gas generates energy that heats their interior.

The fact that our temperature measurement of HETE J1900.1-2455 was so low, despite 10 years of activity, places exciting constraints on its interior properties. In particular, it requires that the central, liquid part of the neutron star is strongly superfluid. A superfluid is very peculiar liquid that has zero viscosity and freely moves without experiencing any friction. In laboratory experiments on Earth, liquid helium can be made superfluid when it is cooled down to nearly zero temperature. It is quite amazing that in neutron stars superfluidity can be achieved at temperatures of nearly a million degrees Celsius.

The constraints on the intriguing interior properties of HETE J1900.1-2455 will become even stronger if the neutron star cools further down now that it has stopped eating. We therefore plan further temperature measurements of this neutron star in the future.

Paper: ADS link


Schematic representation of the structure of a neutron star.

Staring at a very dim X-ray binary

Some neutron stars that consume gas from a companion star generate much dimmer X-rays than the general population of X-ray binaries. Since the brightness scales with the amount of mass that is being devoured, it seems that in these sub-luminous X-ray binaries the neutron star is not eating much. There are two leading theories to explain why this may be happening, which breaks down to a supply or demand problem.

One obvious explanation might be that some neutron stars have old, small companion stars that are deprived of hydrogen (the most abundant element in the Universe) and supply only a limited amount of gas. Indeed, attempts to study the donor stars suggest that some of these neutron stars are being starved. However, there are also a few cases where the optical emission is bright and the transferred gas clearly contains hydrogen, implying that there shouldn’t be a supply problem.

An alternative explanation is that some neutron stars have little appetite and consume only a small amount of the gas that is offered to them. In particular, these neutron stars may have a relatively strong magnetic fields that is able to stop the gas supplied by the donor from falling on to the neutron star or perhaps spit much of it out. To test this idea, we performed an in-depth study of the sub-luminous X-ray binary IGR J17062-6143.

First, studying its X-ray reflection using the NuSTAR and Swift satellites, we found that the gas stripped from the donor star does not reach as close to the neutron star as  normally the case in X-ray binaries. Second, using the Chandra satellite we found hints of narrow X-ray emission and absorption lines that could indicate that gas is blown away from the neutron star. The picture that appears to emerge from our study is that the neutron star in IGR J17062-6143 has a relatively strong magnetic field that pushes the in-falling gas away. Moreover, as the neutron star is (rapidly) rotating, its magnetic field may blow a large portion of the in-falling gas away, much like the propellor blades of a chopper do.

We are going to carry out further tests of this scenario. In particular, we recently obtained sensitive radio observations with the Australia Telescope Compact Array to search for  additional evidence that this neutron star is spitting out a lot of gas. Moreover, we recently obtained an optical spectrum with the large (8-m diameter) Gemini South telescope in Chili, to test if this neutron star has a normal, hydrogen-containing companion star. We are eager to see what comes out of those new observations and if those allow us to conclusively solve the “supply or demand problem” for the neutron star in IGR J17062-6143.

Paper link: ADS


Artist impression of an X-ray binary with a neutron star that has a relatively strong magnetic field. Image credit: NASA.

Characterizing a new neutron star

Since the dawn of X-ray astronomy over 50 years ago, more than 150 neutron stars swallowing gas from a nearby (Sun-like) companion star have been identified in our Galaxy. Still, every year a few new neutron stars are discovered when they suddenly start to devour their unfortunate neighbours. Different telescopes and satellites are then used to characterize such a previously unknown X-ray binary.

In February 2015, the X-ray emission of an object named 1RXS J180408.9-342058 was suddenly found to have brightened by more than 3 orders of magnitude. It was known to be an X-ray binary since 2012 when it displayed a thermonuclear X-ray burst; a devastating burp from a dining neutron star. At the time, however, it seemed that the neutron star was only taking a mid-night snack and had gone back to sleep before we could point our telescopes to investigate its eating patterns. Luckily, when it awoke in 2015 the neutron star clearly had much more appetite and kept swallowing gas from its companion for several months. This provided ample opportunity to study it in high detail.

We used three different X-ray satellites, namely NuSTAR, Chandra and Swift, to chart the geometry of this X-ray binary and the table manners of its neutron star. NuSTAR is a particularly powerful tool to study X-rays reflecting off the gaseous disk that surrounds and feeds the neutron star. Leveraging this, we determined that we view the binary at an angle of about 30 degrees, and that the gas disk was extending very close to the neutron star. In turn, this shows that the neutron star’s magnetic field is relatively weak and not able to keep the accretion flow at a distance. With Swift and Chandra we collected X-ray data when 1RXS J180408.9-342058 was at its brightest, and this suggested that the neutron star was eating rather messy; hints of narrow absorption lines suggest that part of the gas flowing towards the neutron star was blown away in a disk wind.

Paper link: ADS


Artist impression of an X-ray binary. Image credit: NASA.