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X-ray emission from magnetized neutron star atmospheres at low mass-accretion rates. I. Phase-averaged spectrum

Sokolova-Lapa, E. and Gornostaev, M. and Wilms, J. and Ballhausen, R. and Falkner, S. and Postnov, K. and Thalhammer, P. and Fürst, F. and García, J. A. and Shakura, N. and Becker, P. A. and Wolff, M. T. and Pottschmidt, K. and Härer, L. and Malacaria, C. (2021) X-ray emission from magnetized neutron star atmospheres at low mass-accretion rates. I. Phase-averaged spectrum. Astronomy and Astrophysics, 651 . Art. No. A12. ISSN 0004-6361. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/202040228.

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Recent observations of X-ray pulsars at low luminosities allow, for the first time, the comparison of theoretical models of the emission from highly magnetized neutron star atmospheres at low mass-accretion rates (Ṁ ≲ 10¹⁵ g s⁻¹) with the broadband X-ray data. The purpose of this paper is to investigate spectral formation in the neutron star atmosphere at low Ṁ and to conduct a parameter study of the physical properties of the emitting region. We obtain the structure of the static atmosphere, assuming that Coulomb collisions are the dominant deceleration process. The upper part of the atmosphere is strongly heated by the braking plasma, reaching temperatures of 30–40 keV, while its denser isothermal interior is much cooler (∼2 keV). We numerically solve the polarized radiative transfer in the atmosphere with magnetic Compton scattering, free–free processes, and nonthermal cyclotron emission due to possible collisional excitations of electrons. The strongly polarized emitted spectrum has a double-hump shape that is observed in low-luminosity X-ray pulsars. A low-energy “thermal” component is dominated by extraordinary photons that can leave the atmosphere from deeper layers because of their long mean free path at soft energies. We find that a high-energy component is formed because of resonant Comptonization in the heated nonisothermal part of the atmosphere even in the absence of collisional excitations. However, these latter, if present, affect the ratio of the two components. A strong cyclotron line originates from the optically thin, uppermost zone. A fit of the model to NuSTAR and Swift/XRT observations of GX 304−1 provides an accurate description of the data with reasonable parameters. The model can thus reproduce the characteristic double-hump spectrum observed in low-luminosity X-ray pulsars and provides insights into spectral formation.

Item Type:Article
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription Paper
Sokolova-Lapa, E.0000-0001-7948-0470
Wilms, J.0000-0003-2065-5410
Ballhausen, R.0000-0002-1118-8470
Falkner, S.0000-0001-5209-991X
Postnov, K.0000-0002-1705-617X
Fürst, F.0000-0003-0388-0560
García, J. A.0000-0003-3828-2448
Shakura, N.0000-0002-5672-9517
Becker, P. A.0000-0002-3718-1293
Wolff, M. T.0000-0002-4013-5650
Pottschmidt, K.0000-0002-4656-6881
Härer, L.0000-0002-5377-0493
Malacaria, C.0000-0002-0380-0041
Additional Information:© ESO 2021. Article published by EDP Sciences. Received 23 December 2020; Accepted 13 April 2021; Published online 01 July 2021. This research has been partially funded by DFG grant 1830Wi1860/11-1 and RFBR grant 18-502-12025. This research has been supported by the Interdisciplinary Scientific and Educational School of Moscow University “Fundamental and Applied Space Research”. Astrophysics research at NRL is supported by NASA. J.A.G. acknowledges support from NASA Astrophysics Theory Program grant 80NSSC20K0540, and from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. C.M. is supported by an appointment to the NASA Postdoctoral Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center, administered by Universities Space Research Association under contract with NASA. Part of this work is based on public data from the Swift data archive and has made use of data obtained with NuSTAR, a project led by the California Institute of Technology, managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and funded by NASA. We acknowledge the use of the NuSTAR Data Analysis Software (NuSTARDAS) jointly developed by the ASI Science Data Center (ASDC, Italy) and the California Institute of Technology (USA). We also acknowledge the use of the XRT Data Analysis Software (XRTDAS) developed under the responsibility of the ASI Science Data Center (ASDC), Italy. This research made use of NumPy (Oliphant 2006), SciPy (Virtanen et al. 2020), and Matplotlib (Hunter 2007) libraries, as well as Astropy (, a community-developed core Python package for Astronomy (Astropy Collaboration 2013, 2018), and ISIS functions (ISISscripts) provided by ECAP/Remeis observatory and MIT (
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)1830Wi1860/11-1
Russian Foundation for Basic Research18-502-12025
Moscow UniversityUNSPECIFIED
Alexander von Humboldt FoundationUNSPECIFIED
NASA Postdoctoral ProgramUNSPECIFIED
Subject Keywords:X-rays: binaries – stars: neutron – methods: numerical – radiative transfer – magnetic fields – polarization
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20210720-195758956
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Official Citation:X-ray emission from magnetized neutron star atmospheres at low mass-accretion rates - I. Phase-averaged spectrum. E. Sokolova-Lapa, M. Gornostaev, J. Wilms, R. Ballhausen, S. Falkner, K. Postnov, P. Thalhammer, F. Fürst, J. A. García, N. Shakura, P. A. Becker, M. T. Wolff, K. Pottschmidt, L. Härer and C. Malacaria. A&A, 651 (2021) A12; DOI:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:109936
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:21 Jul 2021 16:24
Last Modified:21 Jul 2021 16:24

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