Hotter than expected neutron star surfaces help explain superburst frequency

Apr 13, 2007
Accreting Neutron Star
Neutron star accreting matter from a red giant star. The red giant (on the upper right) is expanding and dumping material onto the neutron star. This material forms a disk and then finally falls to the neutron star surface. Credit: Tony Piro, U.C. Berkeley

A new theoretical thermometer built from heavy-duty mathematics and computer code suggests that the surfaces of certain neutron stars run significantly hotter than previously expected. Hot enough, in fact, to at least partially answer an open question in astrophysics -- how to explain the observed frequency of ultra-violent explosions known as superbursts that sometimes ignite on such stars' surfaces?

"This is the first model that goes into some reasonable detail about the nuclear physics that occur in the crusts of accreting neutron stars," said Hendrik Schatz, NSCL professor and co-author of a paper that will be published in The Astrophysical Journal in June. One of Schatz's co-authors, NSCL assistant professor Ed Brown, will present the results April 17 at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Jacksonville, Fla.

Superbursts emanate from binary systems in which a neutron star orbits a companion star. When the two stars get close enough together, a steady rain of material is sucked away from the companion star onto the surface of the neutron star.

Because a neutron star is so dense -- on Earth, one teaspoonful would weigh a billion tons -- the companion star material that reaches the neutron star surface is strongly compressed and heated. Eventually nuclear reactions trigger an explosion that burns through the surface layer of accumulated material, resulting in a burst of X-rays clearly detectable by ground- and space-based instruments.

X-ray bursts repeat every few hours to days, along the way fusing hydrogen and helium into a mixture of elements that is itself potentially reactive. In contrast, superbursts occur when, after many months, the accumulated "ashes" produced in the X-ray bursts ignite in a different, even more dramatic nuclear explosion.

The result is an outpouring of X-rays some 1,000 times as energetic as a standard X-ray burst. One superburst, which lasts only on the order of a few hours, releases as much energy as the sun will radiate in a decade.

Though hardly subtle astrophysical phenomena, superbursts remain shrouded in some mystery, largely because only twelve of the extreme events have ever been observed. This mystery is what attracted the attention of researchers participating in the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics, or JINA, project.

Working with colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Mainz in Germany, JINA-affiliated NSCL scientists set out to build the most accurate model to-date of the crusts of accreting neutron stars. The team calculated that reactions in the stars' crusts release 10 times more heat than indicated by earlier models.

At least in part, this newly discovered heat helps to reconcile the work of theorists and experimentalists who study neutron stars. Prior to Schatz and Brown's research, theoretical astrophysicists predicted that superbursts should occur every ten years or so. Now, according the new calculation, theorists can explain why the gigantic explosions should occur every three or four years.

But more work remains to be done. According to observational data, superbursts occur roughly annually -- and scientists still aren't altogether sure why.

"So this doesn't quite solve the problem," Brown said. "It's still an open question as to how nature ignites superbursts."

Preprint of forthcoming Astrophysical Journal paper, "Heating in the Accreted Neutron Star Ocean: Implications for Superburst Ignition": arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0609828

Source: Michigan State University

Explore further: Comet Jacques makes a 'questionable' appearance

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Fermi finds a 'transformer' pulsar

Jul 22, 2014

(Phys.org) —In late June 2013, an exceptional binary containing a rapidly spinning neutron star underwent a dramatic change in behavior never before observed. The pulsar's radio beacon vanished, while at ...

Radio-burst discovery deepens astrophysics mystery

Jul 10, 2014

The discovery of a split-second burst of radio waves by scientists using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico provides important new evidence of mysterious pulses that appear to come from deep in outer ...

Cosmic explosion spotted in neighbouring galaxy

May 28, 2014

(Phys.org) —NASA's Swift satellite reported an enormous explosion occurred this morning at 8.15 AEST in our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda. This explosion is known as a Gamma Ray Burst (GRB), one of the ...

Stability lost as supernovae explode

May 15, 2014

Exploding supernovae are a phenomenon that is still not fully understood. The trouble is that the state of nuclear matter in stars cannot be reproduced on Earth.

Have cosmologists lost their minds in the multiverse?

May 13, 2014

The recent BICEP2 observations – of swirls in the polarisation of the cosmic microwave background – have been proclaimed as many things, from evidence of the Big Bang and gravitational waves to something ...

Recommended for you

Comet Jacques makes a 'questionable' appearance

Jul 28, 2014

What an awesome photo! Italian amateur astronomer Rolando Ligustri nailed it earlier today using a remote telescope in New Mexico and wide-field 4-inch (106 mm) refractor. Currently the brightest comet in ...

Image: Our flocculent neighbour, the spiral galaxy M33

Jul 28, 2014

The spiral galaxy M33, also known as the Triangulum Galaxy, is one of our closest cosmic neighbours, just three million light-years away. Home to some forty billion stars, it is the third largest in the ...

Image: Chandra's view of the Tycho Supernova remnant

Jul 25, 2014

More than four centuries after Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe first observed the supernova that bears his name, the supernova remnant it created is now a bright source of X-rays. The supersonic expansion of ...

User comments : 0