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.

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

14U_fits

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.

Puffing up the accretion flow

X-ray binaries are most easily studied when they are devouring a lot of gas and therefore produce bright radiation at X-ray, UV, optical, infrared and radio wavelengths. During such outburst episodes, the gas that is being stripped off from the companion forms a disk that swirls around the black hole or neutron star. We think that this accretion disk extends very close to the cannibal star, maybe even touching it.

During quiescent episodes, X-ray binaries are consuming much less gas and are therefore orders of magnitude dimmer at all wavelengths. Current theories of accretion prescribe that during quiescence, the accretion disk cannot extend close to the black hole or the neutron star and must lie (tens of) thousands of kilometers away. In between the edge of this disk and the compact star, the gas flow might be very hot and vertically extended. However, because this gas is very tenuous and not producing strong radiation, it is very hard to test this idea with observations.

Accretion theory thus predicts that as an X-ray binary starts to fade from outburst to quiescence, the geometry of the accretion flow is strongly changing. However, it is highly challenging to measure this because 1) it’s not predictable exactly when X-ray binaries transition to quiescence, 2) once they do, the transition happens very rapidly, typically on a timescale of 1-2 weeks, and is therefore easy to miss, and 3) as X-ray binaries decay into quiescence they become increasingly dim and therefore long/sensitive observations are needed in order to study the properties of the accretion stream. Ready to take up this challenge, we recently designed an ambitious observing campaign aimed to reveal the changing accretion flow in an X-ray binary called 4U 1608-52.

One powerful way to measure the location of the inner edge of an accretion disk is X-ray reflection. This produces prominent emission features at certain X-ray energies that can be studied with sensitive X-ray telescope. NuSTAR is one of the telescopes that is optimally suited to study X-ray reflection. In a previous study, we observed the X-ray binary 4U 1608-52 during one of its accretion outbursts. Our NuSTAR observation revealed a beautiful X-ray reflection spectrum that allowed us to determine that the accretion disk was extending very close to the neutron star. Taking advantage of the fact that 1) this X-ray binary goes into outburst once every few years (opposed to some sources for which we have observed only 1 outburst over 5 decades), and 2) it produces a very strong reflection spectrum, we designed an observing campaign to capture the source again with NuSTAR, but then at a factor ~10 lower luminosity. The main aim was to use the reflection spectrum to determine if with this change in brightness, the accretion geometry changes a lot.

When our target 4U 1608-52 was seen to enter a new accretion outburst in 2018, we closely monitored how its brightness evolved by looking at the data obtained with the Japanese MAXI X-ray telescope that is installed on the International Space Station. Once MAXI showed that the X-ray brightness of 4U 1608-52 was decreasing, we performed observations with the much more sensitive Swift and NICER telescopes. This allowed us to continue watching our target once it became too faint to be detected with MAXI. We analyzed each new Swift observation immediately after it was performed and tried to predict how the brightness of our target would decay onward. With a few days lead time, we then triggered our NuSTAR observation, hoping that it would observe our target at exactly the right time.

After an intense 2 weeks of watching 4U 1608-52 closely every day, we succeeded to have NuSTAR point to our target at exactly the right time. Interestingly, our new NuSTAR observation showed that with a factor ~10 change in brightness, the reflection spectrum completely disappeared. We think that this is because the accretion flow is changing from a (flat) disk into a hot (spherical) structure. This constitutes one of the very few observations that supports standard accretion models, so we are very excited about these results.

van den Eijnden, Degenaar, Ludlam, Parikh, Miller, Wijnands, Gendreau, Arzoumanian, Chakrabarty, Bult, 2020, MNRAS 493, 1318: A strongly changing accretion morphology during the outburst decay of the neutron star X-ray binary 4U 1608-52

Paper link: ADS

4U1608_combi

NICER and NuSTAR spectra of 4U1608-52. The left panel shows the data obtained during several instances along the 2018 outburst. Data obtained during the 2014 outburst is shown for comparison. A prominent feature can be seen between 5 and 10 keV that is referred to as the iron (Fe-K) line and gives information about the accretion geometry. The right panel shows that this emission feature disappears during the decay of the outburst, which shows that there is a dramatic change in the accretion flow.

 

 

 

 

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

aqlx1_cool_3outbursts

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.

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.

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

SKA

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.