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4.1 Accreting neutron stars in low-mass X-ray binaries

In this section we will concentrate on accreting neutron stars in low-mass X-ray binaries (LMXB), where the mass of the companion is significantly less than M ⊙, and the accretion stage can last as long as ∼ 109 y. A binary is sufficiently tight for the companion to fill its Roche lobe. The mass transfer proceeds through the inner Lagrangian point, and the transferred plasma flows in a deep gravitational potential well, via an accretion disk, towards the neutron star surface, as illustrated in Figure 18View Image.
View Image

Figure 18: The artist’s view of a low-mass X-ray binary. The companion of a neutron star fills its Roche lobe and loses its mass via plasma flow through the inner Lagrangian point. Due to its angular momentum, plasma orbits around the neutron star, forming an accretion disk. Gradually losing angular momentum due to viscosity within the accretion disk, plasma approaches the neutron star and eventually falls onto its surface. Figure by T. Piro.

A hydrogen atom falling on a neutron star surface from infinity releases ∼ 200 MeV of gravitational binding energy. Therefore, accretion onto a neutron star releases ∼ 200 MeV per accreted nucleon. Most of this energy is radiated in X-rays, so that the total X-ray luminosity of an accreting neutron star can be estimated as LX ∼ (M˙∕10 −10M ⊙ ∕y) 1036 erg s−1. Space X-ray observations of accreting neutron stars were at the origin of X-ray astronomy [159]. Accreted matter is usually hydrogen rich. It forms the outer envelope of a neutron star, which contains a hydrogen burning shell, with an energy release of about 5 MeV/nucleon in a stable burning. Helium ashes from hydrogen burning accumulate in the helium layer, which ignites under specific density-temperature conditions. For some range of accretion rate, helium burning is unstable, so that its ignition triggers a thermonuclear flash, burning within seconds all the envelope into nuclear ashes composed of nuclides of the iron group and beyond it; the energy release in the flash is less than 5 MeV/nucleon. These flashes are observed as X-ray bursts, with luminosity rising in a second to about 1038 erg s–1 (≈ Eddington limit for neutron stars, LEdd), and then typically decaying in a few tens of seconds3.

Multiplying the burst luminosity by its duration we get an estimate of the total burst energy ∼ 1039 – 1040 erg. The X-ray bursts are quasiperiodic, with typical recurrence time ∼ hours-days. Since their discovery in 1975 [177], about seventy X-ray bursters have been found. Many bursters are of transient character, and form a group of soft X-ray transients (SXTs), with typical active periods of days – weeks, separated by periods of quiescence of several months – years long. During quiescent periods, there is very little or no accretion, while during much shorter periods of activity there is an abundant accretion, due probably to disc flow instability. Some SXTs, with active periods of years separated by decades of quiescence, are called persistent SXTs. In 2000, a special rare type of X-ray superbursts was discovered. Superbursts last for a few to twelve hours, with recurrence times of several years. The total energy radiated in a superburst is ∼ 1042 erg. Superbursts are explained by the unstable burning of carbon in deep layers of the outer crust.

In all cases, ignition of the thermonuclear flash takes place in the neutron star crust, and is sensitive to the crust structure and to the physical conditions within it. This aspect will be discussed in Section 4.4. An accreted crust has a different structure and composition than the ground state one, as discussed in Section 4.2. It has, therefore, a different equation of state than the ground-state crust (see Section 5.2). Moreover, it is a reservoir of nuclear energy, which is released in the process of deep crustal heating, accompanying accretion, reviewed in Section 4.3. Observations of SXTs in quiescence prove the presence of deep crustal heating (Section 12.7.2). Cooling of the neutron star surface in quiescence after long periods of accretion (years – decades) in persistent SXTs also allows one to test physical properties of the accreted crust (Section 12.7.3).

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