To be or not to be superfluid

Neutron stars have masses up to about 2.5 times the mass of our Sun, but their radii are nearly 50 thousand times smaller. This means that the matter that makes up neutron stars must be squeezed incredibly close together. In fact, neutron stars present the densest observable form of matter in the Universe. While in black holes matter is even more tightly packed, it is all hidden behind an event horizon and hence beyond our reach. For neutron stars, however, we can observe radiation from their surface and use that to infer what they look like on the inside. Neutron stars allow us to study how matter behaves when it is crushed to enormously high densities, conditions that we cannot replicate and study in laboratories on Earth.

Neutron stars are thought to have a 1-km thick solid crust, below which matter occurs in liquid form. It is generally thought that this liquid must be superfluid, meaning that it swirls around freely without experiencing any friction. On Earth, such fascinating, odd behavior is observed when liquid helium is cooled down to extremely low temperatures of about -270 degrees Celsius. There are, however, many uncertainties about how a superfluid works at the millions of degrees Celsius temperatures inside neutron stars. As a result, it is far from understood what the superfluid properties of neutron stars are exactly. This is very important to establish, as it likely has a profound effect on how various neutron star properties, such as their magnetic field strength, spin and interior temperature, evolve over their lifetime. Moreover, several observable phenomena of neutron stars, such as occasional distortions in their rotation called glitches or sudden cracking of their crust analogous to Earth quakes, likely depend on the detailed properties of their interior superfluid.

Since we cannot perform experiments on Earth that teach us how superfluids inside neutron stars may work, we need to reverse the problem. One promising way to do this is to track how a neutron star cools down after it has been heated up by gobbling up gas from a companion star. We call this cannibalistic action accretion and often this happens in spurts that we call  outbursts. The superfluid properties of its interior should influence both the extend to which the neutron star can be heated during accretion outbursts, and how its temperature then subsequently decreases when accretion stops and hence there is no more heat generation. One such neutron star that we previously established to be heated and subsequently cooling down is called HETE J1900.1-2455. In a previous study we tracked its temperature decrease and our modeling suggested that the neutron star would cool further. After having waited a few years, we took a new observation of the source with the Chandra X-ray satellite to verify this.

Chandra pointed towards our neutron star for over half a day and surprisingly saw almost nothing! HETE J1900.1-2455 turned out to have cooled so much that it was hardly generating any detectable X-ray emission, even for the very sensitive X-ray detector of Chandra. In the 16 hours that Chandra started at it, a mere 5 X-ray light particles were capture from the neutron star. In order words, only every 3 hours was the Chandra detector hit by an X-ray light particle from HETE J1900.1-2455. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitive, the fact that we detected so little light from the source actually provides us with very interesting constraints on its interior properties. Performing a rigorous and conservative analysis (based on those 5 light particles!) we inferred the likely temperature of the neutron star and performed highly advanced simulations that take into account the physical properties of neutron stars, including their interior superfluid.

Our analysis revealed that the low temperature of HETE J1900.1-2455 must imply that it is able to cool its interior extremely rapidly. Two exciting possibilities that would allow for this is either that the neutron star is very massive or that a large fraction of its core is not superfluid. The latter option would contrast the general belief and would have profound implications for our understanding of many observable properties of neutron stars. The former option would be a very important finding because the most massive neutron stars put the strongest constraints on the behavior of ultra-dense matter.  Although both options are equally exciting, our current observations do not allow us to distinguish between the two. However, because of the significant science impact, Chandra will again point towards HETE J1900.1-2455 to allow us to obtain a new temperature measurement. This time, it will not stare at the neutron star for 16 hours, but for 6 full days!! If its temperature remained stable, we will then collect 50 X-ray light particles and be able to obtain a much more reliable temperature estimate. If it cooled further, however, we might not see any light at all. Ironically, the latter case would be the most exciting outcome. Part of the data has recently been taken and the remaining observations will come in soon. I can wait to find out what we will (not) see in those new Chandra observations!

Degenaar, Page, van den Eijnden, Beznogov, Renolds, Wijnands 2021, MNRAS 508, 882: Constraining the properties of dense neutron star cores: the case of the low-mass X-ray binary HETE J1900.1-2455

Paper link: ADS

Observations (green points) and simulations (colored curves) of the temperature evolution of the neutron star in HETE J1900 during and after its 11-year long accretion outburst. Whereas we derive an ultra-low temperature of around 35 eV from our 2018 observation, the simulations predict that the neutron star may cool even further to an all-time low of about 15 eV.

A mysterious source of heat

Understanding how neutron stars look like on the inside, i.e. what their structure is and what they are made of, is one of the main challenges of modern astrophysics. There are several different ways through which we try to unravel this. One avenue is to measure how the temperature of neutron stars evolve after they have been eating.

Humans gain energy by eating and so do neutron stars. The meal of a neutron star consists of gas that is supplied by a companion star. By consuming this gas, the outer layers of a neutron star get heated up. Once they stop eating, this gained energy is  radiated away and therefore the neutron star cools down again. How hot neutron stars become during their dinners, and how quickly they cool afterwards, depends strongly on their interior properties.

We use sensitive X-ray telescopes to measure how the temperature of neutron stars evolve after they have been consuming gas from their companion. Such studies have revealed that many neutron stars are much more strongly heated during their dinners than is predicted by theoretical models. This is referred to as the shallow heating problem, because the heat appears to be generated just below the surface of the neutron star. It has puzzled us for over a decade now where this shallow heat comes from.

In a previous study, we proposed that the well-known neutron star X-1 in the constellation Aquila, aka Aql X-1, could provide the key to unravel the mysterious source of shallow heat. This neutron star feasts off its companion about once a year and its heating and cooling can thus be studied and compared after multiple dinners.

Using the Chandra and Swift satellites, we studied Aql X-1 after three meals (in 2011, 2013 and 2016) that were very similar. Since the neutron star consumed approximately the same amount of gas during these three episodes, we expected that it would have been heated to similar extend and hence cool in the same way. However, we found that the temperature of the neutron star was strikingly different after its 2016 dinner than after the other two. Within our current understanding of heating and cooling of neutron stars, it is very difficult to understand why its temperature should be so different.

Instead of unraveling the mysterious source of shallow heat, our dedicated study of Aql X-1 seems to have further complicated the picture. We thus have to go back to the drawing board to think of a new experiment to find out what causes the shallow heat inside of neutron stars.

Degenaar, Ootes, Page et al. 2019, MNRAS in press: Crust cooling of the neutron star in Aql X-1: Different depth and magnitude of shallow heating during similar accretion outbursts

Paper link: ADS


The observed temperature of the neutron star in Aql X-1 after three different outbursts. Although the outbursts were very similar and we thus expected the neutron star to heat up and cool down in the same way, the temperature evolution after the 2016 outburst (black stars) was very different from that seen after the 2011 (red circles) and 2013 (blue squares) outbursts.

What do neutron stars look like inside?

Everything around us is constructed of atoms, which themselves consist of electrons and nucleons (i.e. protons and neutrons). This familiar structure of matter is, however, disrupted when matter is compressed to very high densities that reach beyond the density of an atom, called the nuclear density. It is one of the prime pursuits of modern physics to understand what happens to matter beyond this point. It is not possible to generate supra-nuclear densities in terrestrial laboratories on Earth. However, neutron stars are extreme objects in which matter is compressed to enormously high densities. These stellar bodies therefore serve as exciting, natural laboratories to further our understanding of the fundamental behavior of matter.

Neutron stars are the remnants of once massive stars that ended their life in a supernova explosion. A defining property of neutron stars is that these objects are very compact; while being roughly a factor of 1.5 more massive than our Sun, their radius is almost 100.000 times smaller. Due to their extreme compactness, neutron stars are the densest, directly observable stellar objects in our universe. These fascinating objects come in a wide range of manifestations, e.g. as single stars or as part of a binary, and can be detected at different wavelengths.

Unfortunately it is not possible to travel to a neutron star to conduct experiments of how their interiors look like. However, the macroscopic properties of neutron stars, such as their mass, radius and rotation rate, provide indirect yet powerful information about their interiors. The electromagnetic radiation coming directly from the surface of neutron stars, or from matter that revolves around them, can be used to measure these macroscopic properties. These observational constraints can then be used to infer for instance how high their central density is, what kind of particles are present, and what the superfluid properties of their interior are.

We recently reviewed how different types of electromagnetic observations can be employed to learn more about the interior of neutron stars. This included commonly used techniques of combining radio pulsar timing with optical spectroscopic studies to measure neutron star masses, as well as various techniques to measure neutron star radii from X-ray data. In addition, we touched upon various techniques that have not yielded strong constraints to date, but have great potential to be further developed in the future and can be particularly interesting when combined with other methods. Finally, we provided an outlook of the potential for neutron star research of the future generation of ground-based  observatories such as the Square Kilometer Array and the new class of 30-m telescopes, as well as new and upcoming X-ray facilities such as NICER, eXTP, Athena and X-ray polarimetry missions.

Degenaar & Suleimanov 2018, book chapter in The Physics and Astrophysics of Neutron Stars, Springer Astrophysics and Space Science Library: Testing the equation of state of neutron stars with electromagnetic observations

Paper link: ADS


Artist impression of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which is currently in the design phase. This radio facility is expected to be transformable in many areas of science, including measuring the masses (and spins) of neutron stars.

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.

Degenaar, Ootes, Renolds, Wijnands, Page 2017, MNRAS Letters 465, L10: A cold neutron star in the transient low-mass X-ray binary HETE J1900.1-2455 after 10 yr of active accretion

Paper link: ADS


Schematic representation of the structure of a neutron star.

Accreting or cooling?

Some brave neutron stars are consuming gas from a big companion star that is about ten times as massive as the tiny neutron star itself. In these so-called Be X-ray binaries, the neutron star is typically in a very wide, eccentric orbit and only able to swallow gas from its companion when it’s making its closest approach. Usually this results in modest accretion outbursts. Occasionally, however, very bright and powerful “giant outbursts” are observed during which the neutron star has a much bigger banquet. X-ray binaries that harbor massive companion stars are younger than those with small companion stars (millions of years compared to billions of years). Furthermore, neutron stars accompanied by a massive star are more strongly magnetized (by a factor of 1000 or so) and rotate much slower (seconds versus milliseconds) than when they are fed by a small companion.

When neutron stars feed off a small companion, their 1-km thick crust is heated and cools on a timescale of years after a meal. This heating and cooling sequence provides very valuable information about the tantalizing interior of neutron stars, but there are many unanswered questions about these processes. For instance, it is not yet established how the spin rate and magnetic field strength of a neutron star affects its temperature changes. Given their widely different properties compared to neutron stars with small companions, searching for heating and cooling in Be X-ray binaries can potentially shed new light on these open questions. Giant outbursts should then provide the best opportunity for this quest, as we might expect a neutron star to become more severely heated (and hence more clearly cooling) when more matter is consumed.

Using the X-ray telescope on board of NASA’s Swift satellite, we followed the behavior two Be X-ray binaries, V0332+53 and 4U 0115+63, after their giant accretion outbursts. Interestingly, we discovered that the X-ray brightness of these neutron stars was higher in the months after they finished their meals than it was before they started eating. This could indeed be a sign of a heated crust! However, neutron stars with massive companions are generally more messy eaters than those with small donors; the quality of our data did not allow us to exclude the possibility that their X-ray emission was elevated because these neutron stars were still scraping for food after finishing their main course. Such behavior is in itself relatively unexplored and interesting to study. Our pilot project therefore warrants follow-up investigation to explore either of these exciting possibilities.

Wijnands & Degenaar 2016, MNRAS Letters 463, L46: Meta-stable low-level accretion rate states or neutron star crust cooling in the Be/X-ray transients V0332+53 and 4U 0115+63

Paper link: ADS


Artist impression of a Be X-ray binary; a neutron star in a wide, eccentric orbit around a massive companion. Image credit: Walt Feimer, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.


A mathematical tool to study X-ray bursts

Neutron stars can rip off gas from a nearby companion star and pull this material towards them; a process called accretion. The material that is accreted on to the neutron star undergoes nuclear reactions that can cause detonations generating more energy than an atomic bomb. Such thermonuclear bursts are observed as brief, bright flashes of X-ray emission that last for seconds to hours and repeat on a timescale of hours to months.

Not surprisingly, these violent explosions can be destructive to the surroundings of a neutron star. Indeed, evidence has been accumulating that X-ray bursts have a profound effect on the  accretion flow that transports material toward the neutron star. For example, the explosions can cool, blow away, or accelerate the in-falling flow of material. One way to investigate this is by studying how the X-ray energy spectrum of the accretion flow changes during an X-ray burst. This is not an easy task, however, because the X-ray burst emission typically outshines that of the accretion flow. Small changes in the weak accretion emission are therefore swamped by the bright burst emission.

Mathematical techniques that involve decomposing complex data into matrices (e.g., “non-negative matrix factorization”) have been previously applied to reveal subtle changes in the X-ray emission of super-massive and stellar-mass black holes. Motivated by those successes, we investigated the applicability of such techniques to study changes in the accretion emission induced by X-ray bursts.

For this purpose we used high-quality data obtained with the NuSTAR satellite of a well-known neutron star X-ray binary and thermonuclear burster 4U 1608-52. Our case study revealed that these mathematical techniques can be a very powerful tool to reveal changes in the accretion emission that remain hidden in conventional spectral analysis. Applying these techniques to NuSTAR data is particularly promising, as this instrument can provide valuable information on the  accretion geometry, that helps interpret the results from the X-ray burst analysis.

Degenaar, Koljonen, Chakrabarty, Kara, Altamirano, Miller, Fabian 2016, MNRAS 456, 4256: Probing the effects of a thermonuclear X-ray burst on the neutron star accretion flow with NuSTAR

Paper link: ADS


Artist impression of NASA’s NuSTAR mission (launched in 2012). Image credits: NASA.

Breaking model degeneracies

Neutron stars are sometimes referred to as “dead stars”, because they cannot burn nuclear fuel in their interior as other stars do. Nevertheless, neutron stars can generate energy by accreting gas from a companion star in an X-ray binary.

When a neutron star accretes material, its ~1 km thick crust is compressed. This compression induces nuclear reactions such as atomic nuclei capturing electrons and nuclear fusion reactions. Theoretical calculations and accelerator experiments (e.g., such as done at the nuclear superconducting cyclotron laboratory at Michigan State University), provide a handle on how much heat should be generated inside neutron stars as a result of accretion. These results can then be compared with astrophysical observations.

Neutron stars often feast on their companion only for a few weeks/months (in exceptional cases years), after which they typically sag for years/decades before becoming active again. It is during these periods of quiescence that heat radiation from the neutron star (which have a temperature of millions of degrees Celsius) can be detected with sensitive X-ray satellites such as Chandra, XMM-Newton, or Swift. Since neutron stars do not generate energy when they are not accreting, they will gradually cool as they radiate their heat away as X-rays. Excitingly, dedicated efforts have allowed to detect the cooling trajectories of 7 neutron stars by now.

In this area of research there is thus a direct interplay between astrophysical observations of neutron stars, theoretical calculations about their interior, and nuclear accelerator experiments that mimic the nuclear reactions that take place in their outer layers. Interestingly, our X-ray observations seem to suggest that neutron stars are heated to a larger extend than is currently accounted for by nuclear heating models. It appears that there is a puzzling source of extra energy generation in the outermost layers of the neutron star, referred to as a “shallow heat source“, the origin of which remains to be established.

So far, it appears that the amount of extra heating differs between sources. It is not clear, however, if this is due to their different outburst properties (e.g., length, duration, total accreted mass, accretion geometry), or relates to different neutron star parameters (e.g., rotation period, age, mass, radius). A powerful way to break these degeneracies would be to observe cooling curves for one particular source after different types of outbursts. If the shallow heating is different for each outburst, it is likely related to the accretion properties — else we need to seek its origin in the properties of the neutron star itself.

We took up this challenge by studying the prolific neutron star X-ray binary Aql X-1, which is active approximately once every year and exhibits a wide range of outburst properties. In particular, we exploited the unique flexibility and good sensitivity of the Swift satellite to study the temperature evolution of the neutron star after different outbursts. The first test was to prove whether cooling is actually observable for this particular neutron star, which definitely appears to be the case. Future observations of Aql X-1 aiming to study the cooling trajectories after different outbursts are therefore a very promising avenue to elucidate the origin of the shallow heat generation in neutron star crusts that puzzles astrophysical observers, physicists and nuclear experimentalists.

Waterhouse, Degenaar, Wijnands, Brown, Miller, Altamirano, Linares 2016, MNRAS 456, 4001: Constraining the properties of neutron star crusts with the transient low-mass X-ray binary Aql X-1

Paper link: ADS


Long-term activity of Aql X-1 as seen through daily monitoring observations with Swift/BAT (launched in 2005) and MAXI (launched in 2009). This illustrates the frequent activity of this neutron star X-ray binary. Figure from Waterhouse et al. 2016.

Chemical processes in the crust of a neutron star

Neutron stars are one of the possible end products of the stellar life cycle. These objects are the compact remnants of once massive stars that burned all their fuel and consequently collapsed under their own gravity and exploded in a supernova. One can thus say that neutron stars are ‘dead stars’: they have no internal resources to replenish the energy that is lost via photons emitted from their surface and neutrinos escaping from their interior. When left alone, neutron stars would therefore slowly fade away over the course of millions of years. However, a neutron star can escape this fate when it is a member of a binary system: it can then regain energy by pulling off and accreting matter from its accompanying star (it can suck life out of its companion, so to say).

Accretion causes a complex network of nuclear reactions inside the neutron star, at a few hundred meters below its surface. These reactions serve as an effective energy supply. When the neutron star is done accreting, however, it will immediately start to loose energy again. Using sensitive X-ray telescopes and dedicated observing techniques, the signatures of these processes can be detected: the temperature of a neutron star rises during accretion episodes but then gradually decreases afterward. In particular, a detailed mapping of the ‘cooling curve’ of a neutron star can give unique insight into its tantalizing interior structure, one of the basic quests of neutron star research.

These cooling studies cannot be carried out for just any neutron star: in order to create detectable temperature differences, a neutron star must be very cold to start with, and/or accrete (i.e., be heated) for a long time. EXO 0748-676 is one of the few sources for which such a study could be carried out. This neutron star started accreting some time between 1980 and 1984 and happily continued to cannibalize its companion star until it suddenly stopped in 2008. We seized this rare opportunity to study a cooling neutron star and embarked on a monitoring campaign using the sensitive Chandra, XMM-Newton and Swift X-ray satellites.

Our X-ray observations revealed that EXO 0748-676 harbors a relatively hot neutron star, as expected given its long history of feasting on its companion. During the first year after it stopped accreting, its temperature was gradually decreasing indicating that the hot neutron star was cooling. However, between 2009 and 2011, we did not detect any significant temperature change any more. To verify that the neutron star had indeed stopped cooling, we obtained a new Chandra observation in 2013. Surprisingly, this new data point showed that the temperature had dropped again, indicating that cooling is ongoing. Excitingly, the apparent plateau of stalled cooling in 2009-2011 could be the result of a chemical process in which light and heavy atoms separate out in different layers.

If this process indeed occurs, it would suggest that the crust of neutron stars has a very ordered, strong structure. That has important implications for several observational properties of neutron stars, including the emission of gravitational waves from deformations in their structure. This result on EXO 0748-676 nicely illustrates how astronomical observations can be used to probe micro-physical processes occurring in the dense interior of neutron stars.

Degenaar, Medin, Cumming et al. 2014, ApJ 791, 47: Probing the Crust of the Neutron Star in EXO 0748-676

Paper link: ADS

 Schematic overview of the interior of a neutron star.  Credit: Chamel & Haensel 2008, LRR 11, 10

Schematic overview of the interior of a neutron star.
Credit: Chamel & Haensel 2008, LRR 11, 10

Challenging theoretical models

Studying the thermal evolution of neutron stars is a promising avenue to gain insight into their structure and composition, and therefore of how matter behaves under extreme physical conditions. These compact stellar remnants are born hot in supernova explosions, but quickly cool as their thermal energy is drained via neutrino emission from their dense interior and thermal photons radiated from their surface. When residing in low-mass X-ray binaries, neutron stars pull off and accrete the outer layers of a companion star. This can re-heat the neutron star and drastically impact its thermal evolution.

The accretion of matter causes a series of nuclear reactions (electron-captures and fusion of atomic nuclei) that produce heat at a rate that is proportional to the rate at which matter is falling onto the neutron star. These processes can significantly raise the temperature of the outer layers of the neutron star, the crust, which then become hotter than the stellar interior, the core. How much heat is released, and at which depth, depends sensitively on the structure and composition of the crustal layers. When the neutron star stops accreting (during so-called quiescent episodes), the crust cools down until it reaches the same temperature as the core again. How fast the crust cools depends strongly on its ability to store and transport heat, and hence on its structure and composition. Studying temperature changes of a neutron star due to accretion episodes thus holds valuable information about the properties of its crust.

In 2010, a neutron star called IGR J17480-2446 started accreting matter from its companion star, temporarily making it the brightest X-ray source in the globular cluster Terzan 5. When it stopped 10 weeks later, we began to follow the neutron star every few months with the Chandra satellite to study any possible changes in its temperature. With our initial observations we discovered that the neutron star was about 300 000 degrees hotter than before it started accreting. This provided the first strong evidence that a neutron star can become significantly heated after just 2 months of accreting matter (rather than >1 year; read more here).

Since this neutron star was heated for a relatively short time, theory predicted that it should cool down rapidly. On the contrary, we have found that the neutron star is still considerably hotter than its pre-accretion temperature 2.5 years later! This indicates that there might be some important ingredients missing in our current understanding of heating and cooling of accreting neutron stars. To be able to distinguish between different possible explanations and hence fully grasp the implications of our findings of IGR J17480-2446, we aim to keep observing this neutron star until it has fully cooled. A new Chandra observation has been scheduled for this purpose in the next year (2014). We are anxious to find out how the temperature of the neutron star has changed by that time.

Degenaar, Wijnands, Brown et al. 2014, ApJ 775, 48: Continued Neutron Star Crust Cooling of the 11 Hz X-Ray Pulsar in Terzan 5: A Challenge to Heating and Cooling Models?

Paper link: ADS


Three-color image of the globular cluster Terzan 5, obtained with the Chandra X-ray satellite.

Real-time cooling of a neutron star?

Neutron stars are the densest directly observable stellar objects in our universe and constitute ideal astrophysical laboratories to study matter under extreme physical conditions: immense gravitational fields, ultra-strong magnetic fields, vigorous radiation fields, and supra-nuclear densities. Many observable properties of neutron stars are set by the structure and composition of their crust. A promising way to investigate the properties of these outer stellar layers is to study neutron stars in low-mass X-ray binaries.

In these interacting binary star systems, the neutron star pulls off and accretes matter from a companion star that has a mass comparable to (or lower than) that of our Sun. Many of such X-ray binaries are transient and exhibit outbursts of accretion that last only a few weeks. These are interleaved by years-long episodes of quiescence during which little or no matter is being accreted onto the neutron star. During these quiescent episodes the thermal heat radiation from the glowing neutron star surface becomes visible. This effectively serves as a thermometer of the neutron star and provides a powerful probe of its interior properties.

Sensitive X-ray instruments aboard the Swift, Chandra and XMM-Newton satellites have revealed that outbursts of accretion can severely affect a neutron star’s temperature. Using sophisticated and tailored observing strategies, it has been shown that it causes the crust of a neutron star to be heated to millions of degrees Kelvin. This heat is produced in a cascade of nuclear reactions, including fusion of atomic nuclei (due to the high matter density), and other chemical processes. Once neutron stars stop swallowing matter, the crustal layers slowly cool until they return to their pre-outburst temperature after several years. Both the heating and the cooling encode unique information about the structure and composition of the neutron star’s crust.

With the aim to study the cooling-down of the neutron star in an X-ray binary called XTE J1709-267, we targeted this object in 2013 September shortly after it exhibited an accretion outburst, using the Swift and XMM-Newton satellites. We were expecting to see a gradual fading over the course of several years. Much to our surprise, however, we found that the thermal radiation from the neutron star was rapidly fading during our 8-hour long XMM-Newton observation. An intriguing explanation for this is that we were witnessing fast cooling of the very outer layers of the neutron star in real-time.

If this interpretation is correct, the time-scale of the observed decay places new, strong constraints on the amount of heat that was generated inside the neutron star, and at which depth. When taken at face value, the findings indicate that one particular process that causes atomic nuclei to separate out in different layers, is important in the heat generation. This has important implications for our understanding of the crust structure of accreting neutron stars. A plausible alternative explanation is that the rapid fading was caused by a rapid reduction of the matter supply onto neutron star, hence that our observations tracked the cessation of the accretion flow marking the end of the outburst.

Degenaar, Miller, Wijnands 2013, ApJ Letters 767, L31: A Direct Measurement of the Heat Release in the Outer Crust of the Transiently Accreting Neutron Star XTE J1709-267

Paper link: ADS

An artist impression of an X-ray binary.  Credit: Stuart Littlefair.

An artist impression of an X-ray binary.
Credit: Stuart Littlefair.