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In these systems, ultradense neutron stars feed on their more sedate
companions. Such stellar cannibalism produces brilliant outpourings
of x-rays and drastically alters the evolution of both stars
By Edward P. J. van den Heuvel and Jan van Paradijs

All the shimmering stars that pierce the

night sky shine because of the same fun-
damental process: nuclear fusion. When
X-RAY BINARIES make up two
very different classes of
double-star systems. In both
cases, a neutron star lies at
the heart of the x-ray source.
Most young x-ray binaries,
two or more atomic nuclei collide and such as Centaurus X-3 (top),
contain a bright blue star
fuse into one, they release virtually un- having 10 to 40 times the
mass of the sun. Low-mass
x-ray binaries usually
imaginable amounts of energy. The fu- contain far older, sunlike
stars; in the tiny system
sion of one gram of hydrogen, for ex- 4U 1820-30 (bottom), both
stars must be compact
ample, liberates as much energy as the objects, presumably a
neutron star and a larger but
combustion of 20,000 liters of gasoline. less massive white dwarf.

In stars such as the sun, fusion reactions

burn brilliantly for billions of years.



Massive x-ray binary

(Centaurus X-3)

Neutron star

x-ray binary
(4U 1820-30)

White dwarf star star


DETAIL ENLARGED 20 TIMES Updated from the November 1993 issue 59

They are not the only source of stellar size of the solar system that outshine en- layers of Earth’s turbulent atmosphere.
energy, however. In 1971 astronomers tire galaxies, most likely as a result of gas In 1962 Riccardo Giacconi and his
recognized a class of bizarre, x-ray- spiraling into a supermassive black hole. associates at American Science and En-
emitting stars, known as x-ray binaries, X-ray binaries serve as ideal showcases gineering in Cambridge, Mass., placed
whose intense emissions require an en- for learning in detail how the accretion an x-ray detector on board a rocket and
ergy source far more efficient than even process works. They are bright and rel- discovered the first known celestial x-
fusion. atively nearby, residing well within our ray source, Scorpius X-1. (In 2002 Gi-
Theorists have deduced that these galaxy. acconi was awarded the Nobel Prize in
objects consist of a normal star orbiting The study of x-ray binaries also pro- Physics for this feat.) The name Scor-
a collapsed stellar corpse, usually a neu- vides a glimpse into the life cycle of some pius X-1 indicates that it is the brightest
tron star. Neutron stars are so dense that of the most exotic and dynamic stellar x-ray-emitting object in the constella-
the entire mass of the star is squeezed systems in the sky. In these stellar duos, tion Scorpius. Scorpius X-1 shines
into what is essentially a single atomic one or both members spend some time about 1,000 times brighter in x-rays
nucleus 20 kilometers across. The stars feeding off their partner. That transfer than in visible light. The identity of the
in these binaries lie so close together that of material stunningly alters both stars’ object emitting this radiation was a to-
gas can flow from the normal star to the development. One star may pay for its tal mystery.
neutron star. That captured material gluttony by prematurely ending its life in In the following years, x-ray detec-

One star may pay for its gluttony

but another may receive an energy infusion.
forms a rapidly swirling disk whose in- a spectacular supernova explosion. On tors placed on rockets and very high al-
ner edge, just above the neutron star’s the other hand, placid, elderly neutron titude balloons revealed a few dozen
surface, races around at nearly the speed stars may receive an infusion of rota- similar “x-ray stars.” Astronomers tru-
of light. Friction within the disk eventu- tional energy that causes them to be- ly began to understand these objects
ally causes the gas to fall inward, or ac- come a prominent source of rapidly only after 1970, when the National
crete, onto the neutron star. In the pro- pulsed radio waves. Aeronautics and Space Administration
cess, violent collisions between particles launched Uhuru, the first x-ray satellite,
heat the gas to temperatures of 10 mil- Rocket to the Pulsars which was designed and built by a team
lion to 100 million kelvins. Under such DESPITE THEIR PROMINENCE in led by Giacconi. Suddenly, astronomers
incredibly hot conditions, the gas emits the x-ray sky, x-ray binaries escaped could study the x-ray sky around the
torrents of energetic x-rays. Pound for the notice of researchers until the dawn clock. Within its first few months of ser-
pound, accretion unleashes 15 to 60 of the space age in the 1960s. Celestial vice, Uhuru revealed two intriguing
times as much energy as does hydrogen x-rays are absorbed high in the upper at- x-ray sources, Centaurus X-3 and Her-
fusion. mosphere, precluding their detection cules X-1. Both objects vary in bright-
Astronomers now recognize that ac- from the ground. The advent of space ness in a rapid, extremely regular man-
cretion powers a rich diversity of astro- technology opened up an entirely new ner: once every 4.84 seconds for Cen-
physical objects. These range from in- field of investigation by making it possi- taurus X-3, once every 1.20 seconds for
fant stars to quasars, objects about the ble to loft telescopes above the obscuring Hercules X-1. These sources turned out
to be the first of a whole class of pulsed
NEUTRON STAR in the young, massive binary Centaurus X-3 emits pulses of x-rays as it rotates (left). x-ray stars.
But in the tiny low-mass binary 4U 1820-30, bursts of x-rays occur erratically, when gas collects on
the surface of the old neutron star and undergoes a thermonuclear detonation (right). The pulses provided a critical clue to
the nature of these objects. In 1967 An-
X-ray pulses X-ray burst tony Hewish and S. Jocelyn Bell of the
(massive x-ray binary) (low-mass x-ray binary) University of Cambridge, along with
Relative X-ray

several co-workers, discovered pulsars,

a class of stars that emit regular blips of


radio emission. After some initial puz-

zlement, theorists realized that radio
0 10 20 30 0 10 20 30 pulsars are swiftly spinning neutron
Time (seconds) Time (seconds) stars whose powerful magnetic fields


Accretion onto the Sun Accretion onto a Neutron Star

Infalling 140,000 kilometers

gas a second at impact
620 kilometers X-ray
a second
at impact

Neutron Normal
Sun star star

1.4 million 20 kilometers X-ray binary


INFALL OF MATTER, or accretion, can be nature’s most efficient mechanism of material accreting onto an ultradense neutron star (right). Friction
for generating energy. The energy liberated depends on surface gravity. converts kinetic energy into thermal energy; infalling gas in an x-ray binary
Matter falling onto the sun (left) attains only a tiny fraction of the velocity reaches 100 million kelvins, causing it to emit energetic x-rays.

generate a lighthouse beam of radio 10,000 times as much energy in x-rays away from Earth, each pulse arrives a
waves that flashes by the observer once as the sun radiates at all wavelengths. similar amount late.
each rotation. The similarly short and The x-ray pulsations occur because The amplitude of this effect reveals
constant variations of the newfound x- the neutron star has a strong magnetic the velocity at which the source moves
ray stars hinted that they, too, were as- field whose axis is inclined with respect along the line of sight to Earth. Centau-
sociated with neutron stars. to its axis of rotation. Close to the neu- rus X-3 swings back and forth at 415
Another noteworthy trait of Cen- tron star, the magnetic field directs the kilometers a second. That velocity im-
taurus X-3 and Hercules X-1 is that they infalling, electrically charged gas toward plies that the companion star has at
experience regular eclipses, in which the star’s magnetic poles. There the gas least 15 times the mass of the sun, typi-
they dip to a small fraction of their nor- crashes onto the surface, giving rise to cal of a brilliant, short-lived blue star.
mal brightness. These eclipses proved two columns of hot (100 million kel- Since the early 1970s, astronomers have
that the objects must be binary stars, vins), x-ray-emitting material. As the uncovered about 70 pulsating x-ray bi-
presumably a neutron star orbiting a star rotates, these columns move in and naries. In nearly all cases, the compan-
larger but much more sedate stellar com- out of view as seen from Earth, explain- ion stars are luminous blue stars having
panion that occasionally blocks the neu- ing the variation in the star’s apparent x- masses between 10 and 40 times that of
tron star from view. Centaurus X-3 has ray flux. Several researchers indepen- the sun.
an orbital period of 2.087 days; for Her- dently arrived at this explanation of pul- The bright stars in x-ray binaries
cules X-1, the period is 1.70 days. sating and eclipsing binary x-ray show periodic changes in the frequency
The pieces of the puzzle began to fall sources; indeed, by 1972, it had already of dark lines, or absorption lines, in their
into place. The short orbital periods of become accepted as the standard model spectra. These changes, known as Dopp-
the pulsating x-ray stars demonstrated for such objects. ler shifts, result from the orbital motion
that the two stars sit very close to each Careful timing of the pulsations of x- of the visible star around the x-ray
other. In such proximate quarters the ray binaries showed that they are not source. Radiation from an approaching
neutron star can steal gas from its com- perfectly regular. Instead the period of object appears compressed, or bluer;
panion; the gas settles into a so-called ac- pulsation smoothly increases and de- likewise, radiation from a receding ob-
cretion disk around the neutron star. creases over an interval equal to the or- ject looks stretched, or redder. The de-
The inner parts of the disk greatly sur- bital period. This phenomenon results gree of the Doppler shift indicates the
pass the white-hot temperatures on the from the motion of the x-ray source star’s rate of motion. Because the corre-
surface of the sun (about 6,000 kelvins). around the center of gravity of the bina- sponding velocity of the x-ray source
As a result, the accretion disk shines ry star system. While the source is mov- can be deduced from the variations of

mostly in the form of x-rays, radiation ing toward Earth, each pulse travels a the pulse period, one can use Newton’s
thousands of times as energetic as is vis- shorter distance than the one before and law of gravity to derive the mass of the
ible light. Accretion is so efficient that so arrives a minuscule fraction of a sec- embedded neutron star.
some x-ray binaries emit more than ond early; while the source is moving The measured neutron star masses SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 61

Such regions harbor mostly older stars,
Inner edge
those having ages between about five bil-
of accretion disk gas lion and 13 billion years.
In general, these elderly x-ray bina-
ries do not undergo regular pulsations.
The visible-light spectra of the aged x-
ray binaries also appear utterly unlike
those of normal stars. Instead they grow
steadily brighter toward the blue end of
the spectrum; some of their radiation
X-ray emerges at distinct wavelengths, or col-
ors. Theoretical models indicate that
such a spectrum would be produced by
an inflowing disk of gas heated by in-
tense x-rays streaming from inner parts
of the disk, just above the neutron star’s
Emission from the disk almost com-
pletely drowns out the light from the
companion star. That disparity implies
that the companion must be fairly faint,
which in turn indicates that its mass is
no greater than that of the sun. These
double-star systems are therefore known
as low-mass x-ray binaries. Solar-mass
stars remain stable for at least 10 billion
Magnetic axis field line years, consistent with the age of the stel-
lar population in which low-mass x-ray
binaries reside.
MAGNETIC FIELD of a young neutron star prevents infalling gas from reaching the surface, except Low-mass x-ray sources undergo
at the two magnetic poles. Two hot, x-ray-emitting columns of gas, each about a kilometer across, occasional extreme flare-ups, or x-ray
collect at the poles. The star’s rotation axis is inclined with respect to its magnetic axis, so an
observer perceives regular pulses of x-rays as the magnetic poles rotate in and out of view.
bursts, which have yielded a great deal
of information about these systems.
fall primarily between 1.2 and 1.6 times akin to the sun. The x-ray binaries that Within a few seconds of the beginning of
the mass of the sun, in good agreement include massive blue stars must be very a burst, the object’s x-ray brightness in-
with theoretical expectations. Research- youthful. A star more than 15 times as creases by a factor of 10 or more, peaks
ers have found, much to their excite- massive as the sun squanders its supply for a few seconds to a few minutes and
ment, that several nonpulsating x-ray bi- of hydrogen fuel in less than 10 million then decays to the original level in about
naries seem to contain stars having more years, a blink of the eye compared with a minute. X-ray bursts recur irregularly
than about three solar masses. Current the 13-billion-year age of the Milky every few hours or so.
theory holds that neutron stars exceed- Way. Hence, the double-star systems Researchers have deduced that the
ing that mass limit will produce a gravi- from which these x-ray binaries evolved x-ray bursts result from runaway nu-
tational field so intense that it collapses must have been born only a few million clear fusion reactions in the gas accret-
without limit. The result is one of na- years ago in interstellar gas clouds. Like ed onto the surface of a neutron star.
ture’s most intriguing phenomena: a these clouds and other young, hot stars, Between bursts, new matter flowing
black hole, an object whose gravity has pulsating massive x-ray binaries tend to from the companion star replenishes the
cut it off from the rest of the universe. concentrate in the plane of the Milky nuclear fuel. That steady accretion gives
Way, but not toward the galactic center. rise to the persistent emission of x-rays
Burst or Pulse, Not Both About half the strong x-ray sources seen between the bursts. Despite the
AS ASTRONOMERS have found more x- in our galaxy, including Scorpius X-1, spectacular nature of the bursts, low-
ray binaries, they have come to recog- belong to a very different stellar popula- mass x-ray binaries emit more than 90

nize the existence of two distinct popu- tion. These x-ray binaries concentrate percent of their total energy during
lations: those containing large and lu- predominantly in the central lens-shaped times of quiescence—a testimony to the
minous blue stars and those containing bulge of the galaxy and in globular clus- great efficiency of accretion compared
much older, less massive stars more ters, dense spherical swarms of stars. with fusion.


X-ray bursts occur only in low-mass into interstellar space. In most cases, that ting x-rays. Evidently, some mechanism
binary star systems and x-ray pulses al- loss of mass would disrupt the binary keeps feeding gas to the neutron star.
most solely in high-mass ones; not a sin- and send the two stars sailing off on sep- In one class of low-mass x-ray bina-
gle system displays both forms of be- arate courses. In the rare instance in ries— tightly bound systems whose peri-
havior. The critical factor responsible which the stars remain bound to each ods are less than about 10 hours— the
for this disparity is probably the strength other, they could evolve into a low-mass flow of gas is maintained by a steady
of the neutron star’s magnetic field. x-ray binary. shrinking of the stars’ mutual orbit. As
High-mass x-ray binaries must contain There is also a gentler way. If the pri- the stars orbit, they shed gravitational
neutron stars having powerful magnetic mary star initially has less than eight waves that carry off angular momen-
fields, capable of generating easily de- times the mass of the sun, it will not tum, which causes the stars to draw clos-
tectable pulsations. Neutron stars in blow up. Instead it will produce a white er together. That effect negates the ten-
low-mass x-ray binaries seem to possess dwarf, a stellar cinder far denser than a dency of mass transfer to move the stars

Pound for pound, accretion unleashes 15 to 60 times

far weaker fields. This explanation is normal star but much less so than a neu- apart. The stars ultimately settle into a
bolstered by theoretical models indicat- tron star. In a white dwarf the star’s slowly shrinking orbit in which a steady
ing that a powerful magnetic field would gravity has crushed its constituent atoms trickle of gas migrates from the com-
inhibit the nuclear instabilities that pro- into a soup of electrons and nuclei; a panion to the neutron star. In this way,
duce x-ray bursts. white dwarf having the mass of the sun the neutron star accretes about one
The disparate characteristics of low- would be about the size of Earth. thousandth of an Earth mass a year, suf-
mass and high-mass x-ray binaries un- As the low-mass star evolves, it will ficient to account for the observed lumi-
derscore the very different ways in which gradually expand; if the two stars are in nosity of many low-mass x-ray binaries
these systems must have formed and a close orbit, gas from the low-mass star (about 3 × 10 30 watts).
evolved. Almost immediately after the will accrete onto the surface of the white The brightest x-ray sources in the
discovery of high-mass x-ray binaries in dwarf. The mass of the white dwarf may central regions of the galaxy emit about
1971, workers recognized that such ob- eventually exceed a critical value, about 10 times that much energy. These ob-
jects represent a normal stage in the evo- 1.4 solar masses, and collapse into a jects constitute a second class of low-
lution of close double-star systems in neutron star. This kind of quiet collapse mass x-ray binaries that have relatively
which both objects have more than a ejects very little material, so the system long orbital periods of approximately
few times the mass of the sun. The more can remain tightly bound. Later, the one to 10 days. Such leisurely orbits im-
massive star quickly consumes its fuel stars spiral in closer toward each other, ply that the separation between the two
and expands into a bloated red giant, accretion begins and the system becomes stars, as well as the diameter of the nor-
whose outer layers spill over onto the a low-mass x-ray binary. mal companion, must be quite large.
companion star, exposing the red giant’s In such binaries, the neutron star’s Here the flow of matter must result from
helium-rich center. A few hundred thou- gravity exerts a strong pull on its much the swelling of the companion star as a
sand years later, this helium star ex- larger but less massive companion. The consequence of physical changes in its
plodes as a supernova, shedding much of combination of gravitational and cen- interior.
its outer mass; its remnant core collaps- trifugal forces gives rise to a pear-shaped Such changes occur in the later evo-
es into a neutron star. The neutron star region of stability, called a Roche lobe, lutionary stages of a sunlike star. Hy-
attracts gas from its companion and be- surrounding the low-mass star. Any ma- drogen fusion produces helium, which
comes a source of x-rays. terial lying outside the Roche lobe will accumulates as a dense core; hydrogen
The formation of a low-mass x-ray flow toward the neutron star. The trans- fusion takes place in a shell around this
binary involves a more specialized set of fer of material causes the distance be- core. As the star ages, the hydrogen-
circumstances. Some of these binaries tween the two stars to increase if the burning shell migrates outward, causing
could have started out as a massive star mass-losing star is the less massive of the the star’s outer envelope to expand and
and a stellar lightweight orbiting each two, as is the case in low-mass x-ray bi- cool. That expansion more than com-
other. The small companion star would naries. When the size of the orbit in- pensates for the increasing distance be-
have too little gravity to capture materi- creases, so does the size of the Roche tween the stars caused by the transfer of
al from the primary star. When the pri- lobe. Once the lobe grows bigger than angular momentum. X-ray binaries hav-
mary annihilates itself as a supernova, the companion star, the flow of matter ing a period of about five to 10 days
much of the system’s mass would escape ceases and the neutron star stops emit- reach equilibrium if they experience a SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 63

LOW-MASS X-RAY BINARY initially consists of
a neutron star pulling material from its Evolution of a Low-Mass X-ray Binary
companion (a). The low-mass star is an
elderly subgiant having a dense, inert
helium core. The transfer of mass causes a Time = 0
the stars’ orbit to widen. At the same time, Hydrogen-burning shell
the low-mass star steadily expands and
cools as it evolves (b). The neutron star SUBGIANT STAR NEUTRON STAR
gradually consumes the subgiant’s outer
envelope (c). The exposed helium core Accretion disk
Helium core
(now considered a white dwarf) remains in
a circular orbit around the neutron star (d).
The rotating neutron star is now a millisecond
pulsar that emits pulses of radio waves but 1 solar mass
1 solar mass
no x-rays. (This scenario is based on
calculations originally made by Paul C. Joss
and Saul A. Rappaport of M.I.T.) b Time = 45 million years
of mass

mass transfer rate of about five thou-

sandths of an Earth mass a year, about
the rate required to power the bright
1.4 solar masses
sources around the galactic center.
0.6 solar mass
In 1982 a group of researchers—
Ronald F. Webbink of the University of
c Time = 80 million years
Illinois, Saul A. Rappaport of the Mass-
achusetts Institute of Technology, G. J.
Savonije of the University of Amsterdam
and Ronald E. Taam of Northwestern
University—investigated the fate of these
low-mass x-ray binaries. Their calc-
ulations predict that, regardless of their
initial traits, these systems always reach
the same evolutionary end point. The gi- 1.69 solar masses
ant star soon loses its entire hydrogen-
rich envelope; its naked helium core re-
mains as a white dwarf containing be- 0.31 solar mass
tween 0.25 and 0.45 solar mass. The
stars’ final orbit is extremely circular be-
cause of the tens of millions of years of d Time = 81 million years
tidal interaction between the neutron
star and its low-mass partner.
After the supply of accreting materi-
al dries up, binary star systems no long-
er emit detectable amounts of x-rays.
The last evolutionary stages nonetheless
offer a fascinating glimpse at what hap-
pens to very old neutron stars. During 100 solar
these later phases, the neutron star’s radii
most distinctive emission is in the form
of radio waves, not x-rays.
Radio waves
In 1983, while working on the 300-
meter radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto
Rico, Valentin Boriakoff of Cornell Uni- pulsar
White dwarf

versity, Rosolino Buccheri of the Italian

National Research Council in Palermo
0.31 solar mass
and Franco Fauci of the University of
Palermo discovered the binary radio pul- 1.69 solar masses
sar PSR 1953+29. Its properties closely


MASSIVE X-RAY BINARY contains a bright
Evolution of a High-Mass X-ray Binary blue star and an accreting neutron star (a).
The blue star expands until its outer
envelope engulfs both its helium-rich core
Helium core
and the neutron star (b). The orbital motion
a Time = 0 of the two stars inside the envelope heats
the envelope and blows it away, leaving
behind a helium star and a neutron star (c).
If the helium star has more than 2.5 solar
NEUTRON STAR masses, it explodes as a supernova (d) and
GIANT Accretion disk forms a second pulsing neutron star. The
STAR explosion may disrupt the system (e1);
15 solar masses otherwise, the result is two neutron stars
1.4 solar masses locked in a rapid, eccentric orbit (e2).
Less massive helium cores do not explode;
they end up as white dwarfs in circular
orbits about the neutron star.

b Time = 20,000 years

resemble those of the extinct x-ray bina-

ries modeled by Webbink and his col-
leagues. The pulsar’s radio signals dis-
Dispersal played no signs of the eclipses or ab-
of common
envelope sorption produced by normal stars. The
researchers recognized that the pulsar’s
companion must itself be a compact ob-
ject. Because of its low mass, it is prob-
ably a white dwarf.

c Time = 40,000 years Superfast Spinners

ONE OF THE MOST surprising as-
pects of PSR 1953+29 is its period of ra-
4 solar masses dio pulsation: a remarkably swift 6.1
milliseconds, or 160 rotations a second.
d Time = 500,000 years Half a year before the discovery of PSR
1953+29, Donald C. Backer of the Uni-
Radio versity of California at Berkeley and his
co-workers had found another pulsar,
SUPERNOVA PSR 1937+21, which has a period of
only 1.6 milliseconds. Astronomers now
recognize these objects as the prototypes
of a category of rapidly spinning neu-
tron stars known as millisecond pulsars;
70 have been found since.
e1 The inferred history of x-ray binaries
pulsars made it clear why these pulsars spin so
quickly. In low-mass x-ray binaries (and
in many massive x-ray binaries as well),
1.4 solar 1.4 solar orbital motion prevents matter from
masses masses
falling directly onto the neutron star. In-
stead it goes into orbit about the star,
forming an accretion disk. Material
from the disk’s inner edge falls onto the
neutron star. During the later stages of
Binary pulsar

accretion, that infalling material greatly

speeds up the star’s rotation.
25 solar Nearly all binary radio pulsars pos-
sess companions that have evolved into
white dwarfs or neutron stars. At some SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 65

sion varies in proportion to the fourth In addition to the binary radio pul-
a Rotation period: power of the rate of rotation. Millisec- sars discussed, astronomers have iden-
0.1 second
ond neutron stars can be detected only tified another, rarer class of such objects
because they were “spun up” by their that have substantially different charac-
companions during the x-ray binary teristics. Their orbits often are extreme-
phase. Radio pulsars that acquired their ly eccentric, and their companions con-
rapid rotation in this way are now called tain 0.8 to 1.4 times the mass of the sun.
recycled pulsars, a term suggested by V. These objects probably arose from
Radhakrishnan of the Raman Research high-mass x-ray binaries in the follow-
Institute in Bangalore, India. ing way. In massive x-ray binaries, ac-
Starting in 1987, a number of ob- cretion causes the two stars to spiral ever
field servers found that globular clusters are closer together (the opposite of the situ-
incredibly rich hunting grounds for bi- ation for low-mass x-ray binaries). That
b Rotation period: nary and millisecond pulsars. Studies of process, combined with the swelling of
1 second globular clusters have already revealed the companion star as it evolves, causes
more than 60 radio pulsars; 70 percent the companion to overflow its Roche
of these pulsars rotate in less than 10 lobe completely, engulfing the neutron
milliseconds, indicating that they are re- star. Frictional drag quickly sends the
cycled. This celestial bounty results from neutron star spiraling in toward its com-
the extremely dense nature of globular panion. At a certain point, the friction
Neutron clusters. In their central regions, these generates so much heat that it drives off
clusters may contain more than 10,000 the gaseous hydrogen envelope. What
stars per cubic light-year, a million times remains is the neutron star in a close or-
c Rotation period: the density of stars in the sun’s corner of bit around the stripped core of the com-
0.005 second
the galaxy. Under such crowded condi- panion, which consists of helium and
tions, neutron stars face good odds of heavier elements.
passing close to and capturing a stellar If the heavy-element core is suffi-
companion. Globular clusters harbor ciently massive, it will later detonate
200 to 1,000 times as many x-ray bina- into a supernova and produce a second
ries per million stars as does the galaxy neutron star. The force of the explosion
as a whole. and the precipitous loss of mass cause
Radio waves
The “recycling” model for the origin the stars’ orbit to become elliptical;
of millisecond radio pulsars, first pro- in many cases, the stars break free
posed in 1982, was elegantly confirmed entirely to become runaway radio pul-
influenced by accretion in an x-ray binary. The
in 1998 with the discovery of the first sars. If the orbit survives, the neutron
neutron star’s magnetic field defines the inner millisecond x-ray pulsar in the low- stars follow their eccentric courses al-
edge of the surrounding disk of matter, where mass x-ray binary SAXJ 1808.4-3658. most forever; over the ages, their orbits
gas falls onto the star. When the star is young, Rudy Wijnands and Michiel van der will slowly narrow because of the emis-
its field is strong, so the inner edge of the disk is
distant and comparatively slow-moving (a). As Klis of the University of Amsterdam, sion of gravitational waves. One of
the magnetic field decays, the inner edge of the working with NASA’s Rossi X-ray Tim- the most thoroughly studied binary pul-
accretion disk moves inward (b). The star now ing Explorer Satellite, found that this sars, PSR 1913+16, consists of two neu-
accretes rapidly moving material that causes x-ray source is an accreting neutron star tron stars that race through a highly el-
its rate of rotation to increase. By the time the
accretion ceases, the neutron star may be rotating 400 times a second. Since then, liptical orbit once every seven hours and
rotating hundreds of times per second (c). four more millisecond x-ray pulses 45 minutes. This system’s extreme
in low-mass x-ray binaries have been properties allow it to serve as a sensitive
stage, those companions were giants discovered. test bed for many aspects of Einstein’s
that overflowed their Roche lobes and
dumped matter onto the neutron stars,

EDWARD P. J. VAN DEN HEUVEL and JAN VAN PARADIJS collaborated on the study of celes-
increasing the stars’ rate of rotation. tial x-ray sources from the late 1970s until van Paradijs’s death in 1999. Van den Heuvel
During that time, the double stars would received his Ph.D. in mathematical and physical science from the University of Utrecht in
have appeared as x-ray binaries. After the Netherlands. In 1974 he joined the faculty of the University of Amsterdam, where he

the companion star lost its outer layers is now chairman of the astronomy department. He is also a co-founder and the director of
and the accretion process ceased, a the Center for High-Energy Astrophysics, operated jointly by the University of Amsterdam
naked millisecond pulsar remained. and the University of Utrecht. Van Paradijs earned his Ph.D. in astronomy from the Univer-
The power of a pulsar’s radio emis- sity of Amsterdam and became a professor of astronomy at the university in 1988.


theory of relativity, as Joseph Taylor of binary pulsar system PSR J0437-4715 all binary radio pulsars are 100 to
Princeton University has beautifully is about two billion years old. The pul- 10,000 times weaker than those of nor-
demonstrated. sars in these systems must be consider- mal, youthful radio pulsars, regardless of
Particularly noteworthy is Taylor’s ably older because they would have whether the binary pulsar descended
discovery that the very precisely mea- formed long before their companions from a high-mass or a low-mass x-ray bi-
sured rate of shrinking of this system’s evolved into white dwarfs, yet they re- nary. The weakness of their fields seems
orbit is exactly as expected from the tain substantial magnetic fields— or they to be attributable to some factor that all
emission of gravitational waves as pre- could not be detected. binary pulsars have in common. The
dicted by Einstein’s theory. For this find- most obvious common factor is accre-
ing, Taylor and his former student Rus- Magnetic No More tion. In 1986 Taam and one of us (van
sell Hulse were awarded the 1993 Nobel W O R K B Y Frank Verbunt, Ralph A.M.J. den Heuvel) proposed, on observational
Prize in Physics. Wijers and Hugo Burm of the Center for grounds, a link between field decay and
Studies of binary pulsars have over- High-Energy Astrophysics in the Nether- accretion. Theorists then advanced sev-
turned a long-standing idea about how lands further demonstrates the persis- eral models to explain the details.


emission, x-ray binaries become the most
neutron stars change over the eons. Sta- tence of neutron-star magnetic fields. One model holds that newly accret-
tistical analyses of pulsars had led most The researchers studied three anom- ed layers on the surface of a neutron star
astronomers to conclude that a neutron alous, low-mass x-ray binaries that also form an electrically conductive layer that
star’s magnetic field decays without are x-ray pulsars, indicating that they allows only a small fraction of the star’s
any outside assistance and in due time each contain a strongly magnetized neu- magnetic field to reach the outside. An-
vanishes completely. The existence of tron star. No matter how a neutron star other possibility, proposed by G. Shrini-
recycled pulsars proved, however, that originates, it always loses at least a few vasan of the Raman Research Institute,
some magnetic field persists even in ex- tenths of a solar mass in the form of neu- is that it is the gradual slowing of a neu-
tremely old systems. Moreover, the trinos. When this happens, the binary tron star’s rotation that causes its mag-
companion stars in binary pulsars offer system widens, shutting off the flow of netic field to dissipate. Such deceleration
a way to determine just how old those gas. Accretion cannot occur until the bi- occurs before and during the early stages
stars are. nary system has shrunk through the of accretion. Once the magnetic field has
Three of the millisecond pulsars have emission of gravitational radiation or weakened below a critical threshhold,
observable white dwarf companions, until the companion star has begun to the action of accretion reverses the spin-
which serve as natural chronometers. A evolve into a giant. down trend, but that infusion of rota-
white dwarf steadily radiates away the Both these mechanisms require con- tional energy cannot restore the field to
heat left behind from its days as the core siderable time to take effect. This knowl- its original strength.
of a red giant star. Over the eons, white edge allowed Verbunt to set lower limits In any case, there is every indication
dwarfs grow progressively cooler and to the ages of the accreting neutron stars that millisecond radio pulsars will retain
redder; the color of a white dwarf there- in low-mass x-ray binary pulsars. In the their fields and continue to pulse untold
fore betrays its age. case of Hercules X-1, the strongly mag- billions of years into the future. Thus
In 1986, Shrinivas R. Kulkarni of netized neutron star is at least 500 mil- it happens that long after their era of
the California Institute of Technology lion years old. Neutron stars’ magnetic flamboyant x-ray emission, x-ray bina-
measured the color of the white dwarf fields evidently do not spontaneously de- ries settle down to become some of the
companion to PSR 0655+64 and con- cay, at least not on such timescales. most steady, unchanging entities in the
cluded it must be at least 500 million And yet the magnetic fields of almost cosmos.
years old. Using similar reasoning, three
sets of researchers— led by J. F. Bell of MORE TO E XPLORE
the Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring A New Class of Pulsars. Donald C. Backer and Shrinivas R. Kulkarni in Physics Today, Vol. 43,
Observatories; John Danziger of the No. 3, pages 26–35; March 1990.
Pulsars Today. Francis Graham Smith in Sky and Telescope, Vol. 80, No. 3, pages 240–244;
European Southern Observatory; and September 1990.
Charles D. Bailyn of Yale University— X-Ray Binaries. Edited by W.H.G. Lewin, J. A. van Paradijs and E.P.J. van den Heuvel.
determined that the white dwarf in the Cambridge University Press, 1995. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 67