Changing emission mechanisms

X-ray binaries, in which a neutron star or black hole swallows gas from a companion star, have been known since the dawn of X-ray astronomy in the 1960s. With decades of studies, using many different space-based and ground-based telescopes across the electromagnetic spectrum, we have learned many things about how neutron stars and black holes accrete gas. Nearly all of this knowledge has been assembled for stages during which X-ray binaries are rapidly accreting gas, making them shine bright at all wavelengths and hence can easily be studied. However, most X-ray binaries spend only a fraction of their time being bright and rapidly accreting; the far majority of their time their gas consumption occurs at a very low level. Because X-ray binaries are much dimmer when accreting slowly, it is much more challenging to study them. Our standard  models predict that accretion proceeds very differently at low rates, but we have hardly any observational constraints to test and further develop models of low-level accretion.

There are many different components in an X-ray binary that emit electromagnetic radiation. One of the prime emission components is the accretion disk that, depending on its physical properties like its temperature, radiates at X-ray, UV, optical and near-infrared wavelengths. At low accretion rates, however, theory predicts that this disk evaporates into a more extended hot flow that may emit energy at the same wavelengths as the disk. Apart from the accretion stream, be it a disk or a hot flow, the companion star also emits UV, optical and near-infrared emission  (depending on what type of star it is and whether it is being irradiated by the accretion flow), whereas X-ray binaries also launch jets that can be detected at radio and near-infrared wavelengths, but possibly also in the optical, UV and X-ray bands too. Disentangling the different emission components, and finding which one(s) dominate(s) the total observed emission, can be a powerful way to obtain details about the accretion process. This is not an easy task, however, because for each different wavelength we (generally) need different telescopes and it’s very challenging to coordinate different observatories.

The Swift satellite is a very important observatory to study X-ray binaries. This is for two reasons. Firstly, it is a relatively small satellite that can easily maneuver around, allowing us to take frequent snapshots of sources (which is not possible for bigger satellites). Secondly, Swift carries both an X-ray telescope and a UV/optical telescope, which can observe an astrophysical object at the same time. Combined with its good sensitivity, this makes that Swift is a powerful tool to study how the accretion flow in X-ray binaries changes when it moves (quickly!) from high to low accretion rates. We attempted such a dedicated study for the well-known neutron star X-ray binary Aquila X-1 (aka Aql X-1).

Using Swift data from the NASA archives that covered three different accretion outbursts of Aql X-1, we studied how the X-ray, UV and optical emission changed as the source evolved between high and low accretion rates. We found that the X-ray and UV/optical emission always change together, but that this happens in a different manner when Aql X-1 is bright than when it is fading. This implies that the dominant mechanism producing UV and optical emission changes during the decay of an outburst, as is expected from accretion theory. It might be a hint that an accretion disk is changing into a hot flow, or that the properties of the accretion disk are changing otherwise. Moreover, we found that the UV and optical emission behaves differently during the rise of an outburst than during the decay. This suggests that the accretion flow may have different properties at the start and the end of an outburst. This investigating has exposed some interesting behavior that warrants follow-up by performing similar studies for other X-ray binaries or using additional observatories.

López-Navas, Degenaar, Parikh, Hernández Santisteban, van den Eijnden 2020, MNRAS 493, 940: The connection between the UV/optical and X-ray emission in the neutron star low-mass X-ray binary Aql X-1

Paper link: ADS


The X-ray and UV flux of Aql X-1 over an entire outburst. It can be seen that the emission at the two wavelengths is coupled in a different manner when the source is bright than when it is faint. Moreover, the UV flux is fainter during the decay (yellow/green points) than during the rise (blue/purple points) of the outburst.