Crazy jet experiment

Neutron stars and black holes are notorious for their strong gravity that allows them pull gas from their surrounds. However, apart from swallowing material, these stellar cannibals also spit large amounts of it back into space via so-called jets.

Jets are streams of gas and energy that are being blown into space by an astronomical body that is accreting. X-ray binaries are a prime example of accreting systems that produce jets, but these outflows are seen in a wide variety of astronomical systems, including young forming stars, white dwarfs and supermassive black holes that lurk in the centers of galaxies. Jets play a fundamental role throughout the universe, including the birth and death of stars, the growth and evolution of galaxies, and the formation of large-scale structures (the cosmic web).

X-ray binary jets have an enormous impact on a variety of processes. Firstly, jets remove mass from an X-ray binary. This strongly affects how the accreting object and its companion star revolve around each other, moving closer on a timescale of billions of years until they eventually collide and produce a burst of gravitational waves. Secondly, jets slam into the interstellar medium; the gas that fills the space between stars in galaxies and in which new stars are born. As jets plough through the interstellar medium, the gas is stirred up, heated, and magnetized. This affects the birth rate of new stars and how the galaxy evolves over time. Despite their omnipresence and undisputed importance, however, it remains a mystery how and where jets are launched.

Owing to a Klein-XS grant from NWO, a funding scheme recently installed to support high risk/high gain research, we are going to conduct a very exciting experiment that can potentially shed new light on how jets form. Considering that change is a very powerful diagnostic in astrophysics, my co-workers and I are going to test whether jets may be temporarily destroyed and rebuild in response to thermonuclear X-ray bursts.

Thermonuclear X-ray bursts are brief flashes of X-ray emission that result from runaway nuclear fusion reactions in the gas that accumulates on the surface of an accreting neutron star. These explosions have a devastating power of 1032 Joule (equal to 1015 nuclear bombs!), last a few seconds and repeat every few hours. Recent calculations suggests that thermonuclear bursts can blow away the region where a jet is launched. This could cause the jet to weaken or disappear during a thermonuclear X-ray burst, and rebuild once the explosion has passed. If we can truly detect an response of the radio jet to a thermonuclear bursts, this can prove to be a completely new and powerful way to watch in real time how jets are formed.

Jets emit their energy mainly at radio wavelengths, and are best studied at frequencies of about 8 GHz with sensitive radio telescopes. With the awarded NWO grant, we will buy observing time on the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA)  telescope to study the radio jets of a few neutron stars that regularly fire off thermonuclear X-ray bursts. We will perform simultaneously X-ray observations with the Integral satellite to know at what times the thermonuclear bursts are occurring. If we see any change in the radio emission at those times, this implies that the explosions can indeed affect the radio jet. Stay tuned!

News items: NWO and NOVA

rxsj1804_xmm_bursts

An X-ray observation of an accreting neutron star that shows highly repetitive thermonuclear X-ray bursts. The 11 distinct spikes of X-ray emission each represent a single thermonuclear X-ray burst. These powerful explosions can likely repeatedly destruct or weaken the radio jet.

Astrophysical pollution

The outflows, i.e. the jets and disk winds, that are produced by accreting black holes and neutron stars can potentially have a significant impact on the environment of X-ray binaries. The space in between stars and binary star systems is not empty: it’s filled with tenuous gas and dust that is referred to as the interstellar medium (ISM). Jets and disk winds can slam into this ISM, thereby stirring it and heating it. Moreover, extremely powerful thermonuclear X-ray bursts may eject material into the surroundings of the neutron star and create the same effect. These interactions can may have far-reaching consequences, perhaps influencing the formation of stars and thereby influence the evolution of the entire galaxy. However, it is not yet established if the majority of X-ray binaries truly impact their surroundings; this likely depends on the power of the outflows and the density of the ISM.

Whether or not an X-ray binary interacts with its environment may be determined by looking for shocks in the surrounding ISM. Such shocks produce ionized radiation that are characterized by strong emission lines, e.g. one produced by hydrogen gas at a wavelength of 650 nm (H-alpha emission). Some telescopes are equipped with filters that allow you to look at such a specific wavelength; by taking images with a H-alpha filter, shocked regions around X-ray binaries may be revealed. In addition, a camera with a very wide field of view is required, because the shocked regions may be lying quite far away from the X-ray binaries (and hence would be missed when looking with a camera that has a narrow field of view).

Determined to find out if X-ray binaries generally create shocks in their surroundings, we set up a very large campaign to take H-alpha images of many tens of X-ray binaries. For this purpose we are using the Wide Field Camera (WFC) mounted on the Isaac Newton Telescope that is located on La Palma, Spain. To be able to also access X-ray binaries that are located in the Southern hemisphere,  we are also using the Las Cumbres Observatory, which consists of network of telescopes located across the globe, and the Very Large Telescope located in Chile. To pull off this massive observing campaign, my group and I are joining forces with researchers from the University of Sounthampton in the United Kingdom, St Andrews University in Schotland, the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Spain, and New York University Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Stay tuned for the results!

INT_bigger

The Isaac Newton Telescope on La Palma. Photo credit: see here

Don’t overfeed the neutron star

The laws of physics dictate that there is a maximum amount of food that neutron stars and black holes can digest. Once you reach the so-called Eddington limit, the radiation that is produced by the consumption of gas becomes so strong that it blows away the in-falling material. Theoretically, it is therefore predicted that if you overfeed a neutron star or a black hole, strong outflows are produced: in the regime of super-Eddington accretion, we expect both jets and winds to be created. Jets are usually detected at radio wavelengths, whereas winds often reveal themselves as narrow absorption lines in high-resolution X-ray spectra.

There are a number of neutron stars and black holes identified that are likely accreting at very high rates. Most of these are located in other galaxies, and referred to as ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs), because the high rate of food consumption makes them very bright X-ray emitters. For several of these ULXs, signatures of disk winds have been detected. A few other ULXs have radio bubbles around them that suggest that these objects are producing strong jets. However, to date there is no ULX known that is known to produce both winds and jets at the same time. It therefore remains to be established if super-Eddington accretion indeed causes both types of outflows.

Swift J0243.6+6124 is an accreting neutron star that is located in our Milky Way galaxy and was discovered in late 2017 when it suddenly started to feed of its companion star. Following its discovery, the object kept brightening until after a few weeks it reached super-Eddington accretion rates. We previously detected a jet from this neutron star using the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope. Following this detection, and known that the source was in the super-Eddington regime, we also requested high-resolution X-ray observations with the Chandra telescope with the aim to search for the presence of a disk wind.

Detecting a disk wind in Swift J0243.6+6124 was not an easy task because it was so overwhelmingly bright that it was causing issues for all X-ray satellites: just as the NS cannot eat fast enough, our X-ray detectors couldn’t process the light received from the source fast enough. Luckily, Chandra could be operated in a very special setting that allowed us to look at the source anyway. Excitingly, the spectra that we obtained with Chandra contained a number of narrow absorption lines that can arise from a disk wind. The properties of these absorption lines suggest that the wind is blown away from the neutron star at a dazzling speed of 20% of the speed of light: a speed of about 200 million kilometers per hour! Similar wind speeds have been measured for ULXs in other galaxies.

Our Chandra and VLA observations thus revealed that indeed jets and winds are produced at the same time in the super-Eddington accretion regime, just like theory predicts.

van den Eijnden, Degenaar, Schulz et al. 2019, MNRAS 487, 4355: Chandra reveals a possible ultrafast outflow in the super-Eddington Be/X-ray binary Swift J0243.6+6124 

Paper link: ADS

Spacecraft labled new 2019

Schematic overview of the Chandra X-ray satellite, with which we performed this research. Image credit: NASA

A very radio-bright neutron star

Black holes and neutron stars are notorious for swallowing gas from their surroundings. However, these extreme objects also spit large amounts of matter and energy back into space via collimated streams of gas that are called jets. These jets emit radio emission that can be detected with large radio telescopes such as the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) that is located in Australia. Black holes seem better at producing jets, since their radio emission is on average a factor ~10 brighter than that emitted by neutron stars.

In 2018 August, the X-ray telescopes orbiting the Earth detected a new X-ray source in the Sky that was named IGR J17591-2342 (after its position in the Sky and after the telescope that discovered it, ESA’s INTEGRAL mission). Within a few days after this discovery, we observed this new X-ray source with ATCA, to investigate if it was producing a jet. We detected such bright radio emission that we suggested that this object was likely a black hole. However, a pulsed X-ray signal was detected from IGR J17591-2342; such a signal requires an object with a solid surface and therefore rules out that this source contains a black hole. The detection of X-ray pulsations instead showed that IGR J17591-2342 contains a neutron star, spinning at a dazzling rate of 527 rotations per second, that is swallowing gas from a nearby companion star.

The distance to the new X-ray source IGR J17591-2342 is unknown, but its X-ray emission is strongly absorbed by interstellar gas, which would suggest that the source is relatively distant. For distances larger than 3 kpc, the radio brightness of IGR J17591-2342 is very similar to that of black holes and much brighter than that of neutron stars. It is not yet understood why this neutron star is able to produce such a bright radio jet.

Russell, Degenaar, Wijnands, van den Eijnden, Gusinskaia, Hessels, Miller-Jones 2018, ApJ Letters 869, L16: The Radio-bright Accreting Millisecond X-Ray Pulsar IGR J17591-2342

Paper link: ADS

Lx_Lr_IGRJ1759_russel2018

Radio and X-ray luminosities of a large collection of black holes (black circles) and different classes of neutron stars (grey circles, pink squares and cyan triangles). The location of IGR J17591-2342 in this diagram depends on its unknown distance and is indicated by the different coloured symbols. Unless the source is very nearby (less than 3 kpc), it is unusually radio bright for a neutron star.

A new class of jet sources

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

Paper link: ADS
Selection of press items: NOVA and NRAO
Explanatory movie (English): youtube

lc_swj0432_short

Discovery of a radio jet launched by the strongly magnetic neutron star in Swift J0243.6+6124. Shown is the X-ray light curve from Swift/BAT in black together with our radio observations from VLA in red. After an initial non-detection in the radio, we detected the jet emission during the peak of the outburst and watched it fade in tandem with the decrease in X-rays.

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.

van den Eijnden, Degenaar, Pinto et al. 2018, MNRAS 475, 2027: The very faint X-ray binary IGR J17062-6143: a truncated disc, no pulsations, and a possible outflow

Paper link: ADS

Hernández Santisteban, Cuneo, Degenaar et al. 2019, MNRAS in press: Multi-wavelength characterisation of the accreting millisecond X-ray pulsar and ultra-compact binary IGR J17062-6143

Paper link: ADS

global_sed_flux

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 more strongly suggest a jet origin. If confirmed, it would show that high-magnetic field neutron stars can launch jets after all. These findings would have important implications for understanding jet formation in general.

Press release

van den Eijnden, Degenaar, Russell, Miller-Jones, Wijnands, Miller, King, Rupen 2018, MNRAS Letters 473, L141: Radio emission from the X-ray pulsar Her X-1: a jet launched by a strong magnetic field neutron star?

Paper link Her X-1: ADS

van den Eijnden, Degenaar, Russell, Miller-Jones, Wijnands, Miller, King, Rupen 2018, MNRAS Letters 474, L91: Discovery of radio emission from the symbiotic X-ray binary system GX 1+4

Paper link GX 1+4: ADS

 

jakob_radio_gx14

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.

Degenaar, Ballantyne, Belloni et al. 2018, Space Science Reviews 214, 15: Accretion Disks and Coronae in the X-Ray Flashlight

Paper link: ADS

corona

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.