skip to main content
OSTI.GOV title logo U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Scientific and Technical Information

Title: PHOTOSPHERIC RADIUS EXPANSION IN SUPERBURST PRECURSORS FROM NEUTRON STARS

Abstract

Thermonuclear runaway burning of carbon is in rare cases observed from accreting neutron stars as day-long X-ray flares called superbursts. In the few cases where the onset is observed, superbursts exhibit a short precursor burst at the start. In each instance, however, the data are of insufficient quality for spectral analysis of the precursor. Using data from the propane anti-coincidence detector of the Proportional Counter Array instrument on the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, we perform the first detailed time-resolved spectroscopy of precursors. For a superburst from 4U 1820-30 we demonstrate the presence of photospheric radius expansion. We find the precursor to be 1.4-2 times more energetic than other short bursts from this source, indicating that the burning of accreted helium is insufficient to explain the full precursor. Shock heating would be able to account for the shortfall in energy. We argue that this precursor is a strong indication that the superburst starts as a detonation, and that a shock induces the precursor. Furthermore, we employ our technique to study the superexpansion phase of the same superburst in greater detail.

Authors:
 [1]
  1. National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824 (United States)
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
22092381
Resource Type:
Journal Article
Resource Relation:
Journal Name: Astrophysical Journal; Journal Volume: 756; Journal Issue: 2; Other Information: Country of input: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
Country of Publication:
United States
Language:
English
Subject:
79 ASTROPHYSICS, COSMOLOGY AND ASTRONOMY; ACCRETION DISKS; ASTROPHYSICS; CARBON BURNING; GAMMA ASTRONOMY; HELIUM BURNING; NEUTRON STARS; NUCLEOSYNTHESIS; PRECURSOR; PROPORTIONAL COUNTERS; SHOCK HEATING; STAR ACCRETION; TIME RESOLUTION; X RADIATION

Citation Formats

Keek, L., E-mail: keek@nscl.msu.edu. PHOTOSPHERIC RADIUS EXPANSION IN SUPERBURST PRECURSORS FROM NEUTRON STARS. United States: N. p., 2012. Web. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/756/2/130.
Keek, L., E-mail: keek@nscl.msu.edu. PHOTOSPHERIC RADIUS EXPANSION IN SUPERBURST PRECURSORS FROM NEUTRON STARS. United States. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/756/2/130.
Keek, L., E-mail: keek@nscl.msu.edu. 2012. "PHOTOSPHERIC RADIUS EXPANSION IN SUPERBURST PRECURSORS FROM NEUTRON STARS". United States. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/756/2/130.
@article{osti_22092381,
title = {PHOTOSPHERIC RADIUS EXPANSION IN SUPERBURST PRECURSORS FROM NEUTRON STARS},
author = {Keek, L., E-mail: keek@nscl.msu.edu},
abstractNote = {Thermonuclear runaway burning of carbon is in rare cases observed from accreting neutron stars as day-long X-ray flares called superbursts. In the few cases where the onset is observed, superbursts exhibit a short precursor burst at the start. In each instance, however, the data are of insufficient quality for spectral analysis of the precursor. Using data from the propane anti-coincidence detector of the Proportional Counter Array instrument on the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, we perform the first detailed time-resolved spectroscopy of precursors. For a superburst from 4U 1820-30 we demonstrate the presence of photospheric radius expansion. We find the precursor to be 1.4-2 times more energetic than other short bursts from this source, indicating that the burning of accreted helium is insufficient to explain the full precursor. Shock heating would be able to account for the shortfall in energy. We argue that this precursor is a strong indication that the superburst starts as a detonation, and that a shock induces the precursor. Furthermore, we employ our technique to study the superexpansion phase of the same superburst in greater detail.},
doi = {10.1088/0004-637X/756/2/130},
journal = {Astrophysical Journal},
number = 2,
volume = 756,
place = {United States},
year = 2012,
month = 9
}
  • Superbursts are rare day-long type I X-ray bursts due to carbon flashes on accreting neutron stars in low-mass X-ray binaries. They heat the neutron star envelope such that the burning of accreted hydrogen and helium becomes stable, and the common shorter X-ray bursts are quenched. Short bursts reappear only after the envelope cools down. We study multi-zone one-dimensional models of the neutron star envelope, in which we follow carbon burning during the superburst, and we include hydrogen and helium burning in the atmosphere above. We investigate the cases of both a solar-composition and a helium-rich atmosphere. This allows us tomore » study for the first time a wide variety of thermonuclear burning behavior as well as the transitions between the different regimes in a self-consistent manner. For solar composition, burst quenching ends much sooner than previously expected. This is because of the complex interplay between the 3{alpha}, hot CNO, and CNO breakout reactions. Stable burning of hydrogen and helium transitions via marginally stable burning (mHz quasi-periodic oscillations) to less energetic bursts with short recurrence times. We find a short-lived bursting mode where weaker and stronger bursts alternate. Eventually the bursting behavior changes back to that of the pre-superburst bursts. Because of the scarcity of observations, this transition has not been directly detected after a superburst. Using the MINBAR burst catalog we identify the shortest upper limit on the quenching time for 4U 1636-536, and derive further constraints on the timescale on which bursts return.« less
  • On 2008 August 24 the new magnetar SGR 0501+4516 (discovered by Swift) emitted a bright burst with a pronounced double-peaked structure in hard X-rays, reminiscent of the double-peaked temporal structure seen in some bright thermonuclear bursts on accreting neutron stars. In the latter case this is due to Photospheric Radius Expansion (PRE): when the flux reaches the Eddington limit, the photosphere expands and cools so that emission becomes softer and drops temporarily out of the X-ray band, re-appearing as the photosphere settles back down. We consider the factors necessary to generate double-peaked PRE events, and show that such a mechanismmore » could plausibly operate in magnetar bursts despite the vastly different emission process. Identification of the magnetic Eddington limit in a magnetar would constrain magnetic field and distance and could, in principle, enable a measurement of gravitational redshift. It would also locate the emitting region at the neutron star surface, constraining the burst trigger mechanism. Conclusive confirmation of PRE events will require more detailed radiative models for bursts. However, for SGR 0501+4516 the predicted critical flux (using the magnetic field strength inferred from timing and the distance suggested by its probable location in the Perseus arm of our Galaxy) is consistent with that observed in the August 24 burst.« less
  • GHRS spectra of two very hot stars provide evidence for the presence of microturbulence in their photospheres. In attempting to reproduce the observed spectra, theoretical models have been built in which the microturbulence is allowed to modify not only the Doppler line widths (classical 'spectroscopic' microturbulence), but also the turbulent pressure (thus mimicking a 'physical' turbulence). It is found that a corresponding modification of the temperature-pressure stratification influences the hydrogen and helium line profiles to the extent that the surface gravities of early O stars determined without considering microturbulence are too low by 0.1-0.15 dex. Thus, including microturbulence would reduce,more » or resolve completely, a long-standing discrepancy between evolutionary and spectroscopic stellar masses. 14 refs.« less
  • Neutron stars are among the most compact objects in the universe and provide a unique laboratory for the study of cold ultra-dense matter. While asteroseismology can provide a powerful probe of the interiors of stars, for example, helioseismology has provided unprecedented insights about the interior of the Sun, comparable capabilities for neutron star seismology have not yet been achieved. Here, we report the discovery of a coherent X-ray modulation from the neutron star 4U 1636–536 during the 2001 February 22 thermonuclear superburst seen with NASA's Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) that is very likely produced by a global oscillation mode.more » The observed frequency is 835.6440 ± 0.0002 Hz (1.43546 times the stellar spin frequency of 582.14323 Hz) and the modulation is well described by a sinusoid (A + Bsin (φ – φ{sub 0})) with a fractional half-amplitude of B/A = 0.19 ± 0.04% (4-15 keV). The observed frequency is consistent with the expected inertial frame frequency of a rotationally modified surface g-mode, an interfacial mode in the ocean-crust interface, or perhaps an r-mode. Observing an inertial frame frequency—as opposed to a co-rotating frame frequency—appears consistent with the superburst's thermal emission arising from the entire surface of the neutron star, and the mode may become visible by perturbing the local surface temperature. We briefly discuss the implications of the mode detection for the neutron star's projected velocity and mass. Our results provide further strong evidence that global oscillation modes can produce observable modulations in the X-ray flux from neutron stars.« less
  • When a thermonuclear X-ray burst ignites on an accreting neutron star, the accretion disk undergoes sudden strong X-ray illumination, which can drive a range of processes in the disk. Observations of superbursts, with durations of several hours, provide the best opportunity to study these processes and to probe accretion physics. Using detailed models of X-ray reflection, we perform time resolved spectroscopy of the superburst observed from 4U 1636-536 in 2001 with the Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer. The spectra are consistent with a blackbody reflecting off a photoionized accretion disk, with the ionization state dropping with time. The evolution of themore » reflection fraction indicates that the initial reflection occurs from a part of the disk at larger radius, subsequently transitioning to reflection from an inner region of the disk. Even though this superburst did not reach the Eddington limit, we find that a strong local absorber develops during the superburst. Including this event, only two superbursts have been observed by an instrument with sufficient collecting area to allow for this analysis. It highlights the exciting opportunity for future X-ray observatories to investigate the processes in accretion disks when illuminated by superbursts.« less