Accretion is a fundamental physical process that plays an important role at all spatial scales encountered in the universe. Whenever accretion occurs, it appears to be inevitable that jets are produced; collimated beams of matter and energy that are spit into space by the astrophysical object that is accreting. For decades, strongly magnetized neutron stars stood out as the only objects that accreted and did not seem to produce jets. This led to the paradigm that their strong magnetic fields prevent the formation of jets. Earlier this year, we made a ground-breaking discovery that disproves this.
Despite decades of jet studies of X-ray binaries, strikingly, no radio emission was ever detected from accreting neutron stars that have strong magnetic fields. For decades, it was therefore assumed that these objects do not produce radio emission because they are incapable of producing jets. Originally set out to provide more stringent upper limits on the radio emission, we exploited the upgraded sensitivity of the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope to perform deep radio observations of two strongly magnetic neutron stars, Her X-1 and GX 1+4. Somewhat surprisingly, we detected radio from both objects for this first time. Though very exciting, we were not able to prove that these detections pointed to the presence of a jet, since other emission processes could produce the observed radio emission. Nevertheless, this motivated us to dig deeper into the question if strongly magnetic neutron stars could produce jets after all.
In late 2017, we were fortunate to run into an ideal test case. A previously unknown X-ray binary suddenly exhibited an accretion outburst, making it shine very bright in X-rays. When it was discovered that the accreting object in this newly discovered source, dubbed Swift J0243.6+6124, was a strongly magnetic neutron star, we requested observations with the VLA to search for radio emission from a jet. And this is exactly what we found.
Our observations of Swift J0243.6+6124 unambiguously proved that we were watching an evolving radio jet. Firstly, we clearly observed a coupling between the radio emission and the X-ray emission, as is seen in black holes and weakly magnetic neutron stars. Secondly, by performing the radio emission in multiple frequency bands, we were able to measure the radio spectral index and evolution therein, which too followed exactly the same behavior as seen for other X-ray binaries. Our observations thus disproved the long-lasting paradigm that strongly magnetic neutron stars cannot produce jets, which has far-reaching consequences.
This discovery opens up a completely new regime to study astrophysical jets. In particular is can shed new light on the open question how these outflows are launched. This is because strongly magnetic neutrons stars have a completely different accretion geometry than black holes and weakly magnetic neutron stars, because their strong magnetic field pushes the accretion disk out to hundreds of kilometers. Any jet launching model must thus be able to explain that material is accelerated into a jet from such large distances. Moreover, several models prescribe that the power of a jet should scale with the rotation rate of the accreting object. This has been very difficult to test with black holes, because their spin rates cannot be unambiguously measured, or with weakly magnetic neutron stars, because these exhibit only a very narrow range in spin rates. Neutron stars with strong magnetic fields, however, are observed with a very wide range of accurately measured rotation rates, from sub-seconds to thousands of seconds. This finally allows to test the predicted correlation between that the radio brightness and the spin rate.
Because of the important scientific impact for jet studies, our results are published in the October issue of Nature (2018). Following up on our discovery, we have already started to perform a large, systematic radio survey of accreting strongly magnetized neutron stars. The important next steps are to test if, and how, these jets are coupled to the properties of the accretion flow, and if we can detect any dependence of the jet properties on the spin of the neutron star. Stay tuned.
van den Eijnden, Degenaar, Russell, Wijnands, Miller-Jones, Sivakoff, Hernández Santisteban 2018, Nature 562, 233: An evolving jet from a strongly magnetized accreting X-ray pulsar