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4.4 The fast variability of accreting compact objects

The strongest gravitational fields in astrophysics can be probed only with rapidly variable phenomena around neutron stars and galactic black holes (see Figure 18View Image in Section 7). Such phenomena have been discovered in almost all known accreting compact objects in the galaxy. They are quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs) with frequencies in the range of ∼ 1 Hz – 1 kHz that remain coherent for tens to hundreds of cycles and follow a rich and often complicated phenomenology (for an extensive review of the observations see [171Jump To The Next Citation Point]).
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Figure 10: The dependence of the twin QPO frequencies on the X-ray count rate observed by the PCA instrument onboard RXTE, for the neutron-star source 4U 1820–30 [188Jump To The Next Citation Point]. The flattening of the correlation at high frequencies has been discussed as a signature of the innermost stable circular orbit.

4.4.1 Quasi-periodic oscillations in neutron stars

The fastest oscillations detected from accreting, weakly-magnetic neutron stars are pairs of QPOs with variable frequencies that reach up to ∼ 1300 Hz and with frequency separations on the order of ∼ 300 Hz [171Jump To The Next Citation Point]. The origin of these oscillations is still a matter of debate. However, all current models associate at least one of the oscillation frequencies with a characteristic dynamical frequency in a geometrically thin accretion disk (see discussion in [124100Jump To The Next Citation Point159Jump To The Next Citation Point129Jump To The Next Citation Point]).

The highest dynamical frequency of a mode excited at any radius in an equatorial accretion disk around a compact object is the one associated with the circular orbit of a test particle at that radius [8]; this is often referred to as the azimuthal, orbital, or Keplerian frequency. A mode in the accretion disk associated with this frequency can give rise to a long-lived quasi-periodic oscillation only if it lives outside the innermost stable circular orbit. The azimuthal frequency at this radius provides, therefore, an upper limit on the frequency of any observed oscillation [77100Jump To The Next Citation Point]. As a result, detecting such rapid oscillations offers the possibility of measuring the location of and understanding the properties of the region near the innermost stable circular orbit around a neutron star.

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Figure 11: The dependence of the amplitude and quality factor of the lower kHz QPO on its frequency for the neutron-star source 4U 1636–56 [10Jump To The Next Citation Point]. The drop of the QPO amplitude and coherence at high frequencies have been discussed as signatures of the innermost stable circular orbit.

The signature of the ISCO on the amplitudes and characteristics of the observed oscillations is hard to predict without a firm model for the generation of the oscillations in the X-ray flux. Two potential signatures have been discussed, however, based on the phenomenology of the oscillations. The first one is associated with the fact that the frequencies of the oscillations appear to increase roughly with accretion rate. When an oscillation frequency reaches that of the innermost stable circular orbit, one would expect its frequency to remain constant over a wide range of accretion rates [100]. Such a trend has been observed in the quasi-periodic oscillations of the globular cluster source 4U 1820–30 (See [188Jump To The Next Citation Point75] and Figure 10View Image). When observations of the source obtained over different epochs are combined, the dependence of the frequency of the fastest oscillation on the observed accretion rate appears to flatten at a value of ≃ 1050 Hz. This is comparable to the azimuthal frequency at the innermost stable circular orbit for a ≃ 2.1M ⊙ neutron star [188].

Albeit suggestive, the interpretation of the 4U 1820–30 data relies on the assumption that the oscillatory frequencies in an accretion disk depend monotonically on the accretion rate and, furthermore, that the X-ray count rate is a good measure of the accretion rate. This assumption is probably justified for short timescales (of order one day) but is known to break down on longer timescales, such as those used in Figure 10View Image [170Jump To The Next Citation Point]. Indeed, in a given source, the same oscillation frequencies have been observed over a wide range of X-ray count rates and vice versa [170]. The hard X-ray color of a source, and not the count rate, appears to be a more unique measure of the accretion rate, which is presumably the physical parameter that determines the oscillation frequencies [95Jump To The Next Citation Point]. When the data of 4U 1820–30 are plotted against hard color, the characteristic flattening seen in Figure 10View Image disappears [95].

A second signature of the innermost stable circular orbit is a potential decrease in the amplitude and coherence of the oscillations when the region in which they are excited approaches the ISCO. Such a trend has been observed in a number of accreting neutron stars (Figure 11View Image and [1011]) and has been questioned on similar grounds as the study of 4U 1820–30 [94]. The most significant criticism comes from the fact that the drop in amplitude and coherence is rather gradual and occurs over a ∼ 150 Hz range of frequencies. Even assuming that this drop is a signature of the ISCO, measuring its location will be possible only within a detailed model of the frequencies of quasi-periodic oscillations.

Among more model-dependent ideas, perhaps the most exciting prospect of probing strong-field gravity effects in neutron stars with quasi-periodic oscillations comes from applying the relativistic model of QPOs [159] to the observed correlations between various pairs of QPO frequencies [127]. In the relativistic model, the highest-frequency QPO is identified with the azimuthal frequency of a test particle in orbit at a given radius. The peak separation of this QPO from the second-higher frequency QPO is identified as the radial epicyclic frequency of the test particle in the same orbit. A variant of this model can account for the observed correlations between oscillation frequencies, when hydrodynamic effects are taken into account [129]. Because the two observed frequencies are directly related to the azimuthal and radial frequencies at various radii in the accretion flow, interpretation of the data with this model can provide a direct map of the exterior spacetime of the neutron stars, to within the ≃ 10% uncertainty introduced by the hydrodynamic corrections to the oscillation frequencies.

4.4.2 Quasi-periodic oscillations in black holes

Pairs of rapid quasi-periodic oscillations have also been detected from a number of accreting systems that harbor black-hole candidates [92]. The phenomenology of these oscillations is very different from the one discussed above for accreting neutron stars. The frequencies of the rapid oscillations observed in each source vary at most by a percent over a wide range of luminosities and their ratios are practically equal to ratios of small integers (2:3 for XTE J1550–564 and GRO J1655–40, 3:5 for GRS 1915+105, etc.).

The high frequencies of the oscillations observed from black-hole sources with dynamically-measured masses demonstrate that they originate in regions very close to the black-hole horizons. In fact, requiring the frequency of the 450 Hz oscillation observed from GRO J1655–40 to be limited by the azimuthal frequency at the ISCO necessitates a spinning black hole with a Kerr spin parameter a∕M ≥ 0.25 [160]. Moreover, the frequencies of the observed oscillations are roughly inversely proportional to the black-hole masses, as one would expect if they were associated to dynamical frequencies near the innermost stable circular orbit [2].

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Figure 12: (Left Panel) The intersection of the two solid lines shows the black-hole mass and spin for the source GRO J1655–40 for which the observed 300 Hz and 450 Hz oscillations can be explained as the lowest-order c and g-modes, respectively. The intersection of the dotted lines makes the opposite identification of disk modes to the observed oscillatory frequencies (after [177Jump To The Next Citation Point]). (Right Panel) Each solid line traces pairs of black-hole mass and spin for which the observed frequencies correspond to different resonances between the Keplerian and periastron precession frequencies (after [1Jump To The Next Citation Point]). In both panels, the horizontal dashed lines show the uncertainty in the dynamically-measured mass of the black hole.

As in the case of neutron stars, using black-hole quasi-periodic oscillations to probe directly strong gravitational fields is hampered by the lack of a firm understanding of the physical mechanism that is producing them [1781Jump To The Next Citation Point135103]. In one interpretation, they are associated with linear oscillatory modes that are trapped just outside the radius of the innermost stable circular orbit (for reviews see [17676111]). The frequencies of these modes depend primarily on the mass and spin of the black hole. Identifying the two observed oscillations with the lowest-order linear modes, therefore, leads to two pairs of values for the mass and spin of the black hole (depending on which oscillation is identified with which mode). For example, for the case of the black hole GRO J1655–40, one of the inferred pairs of values agrees with the dynamically measured mass of the black hole of 6.9 ± 1.0M ⊙ and results in an estimated value of the black-hole spin of a∕M ∼ 0.9 (Figure 12View Image and [177]). Although compelling, this interpretation leaves to coincidence the fact that the ratios of the oscillation frequencies are approximately equal to ratios of small integers.

In an alternate model, the oscillations are assumed to be excited in regions of the accretion disks where two of the dynamical frequencies are in parametric resonance, i.e., their ratios are equal to ratios of small integers [1]. In this case, the frequencies of the oscillations depend on the mass and spin of the black hole, as well as on the radius at which the resonance occurs. As a result, the observation of two oscillations from any given source does not lead to a unique measurement of its mass and spin, but rather to a family of solutions. For example, identifying the frequencies of the two oscillations observed from GRO J1655–40 as a 3:2, a 3:1, or a 2:1 resonance between the Keplerian and the periastron precession frequencies at any radius in the accretion disk leads to three families of solutions, as shown in Figure 12View Image. The dynamically-measured mass of the black hole then picks only two of the possible families of solutions and leads to a smaller value for the inferred spin.

Future observations of accreting neutron stars and black holes with upcoming missions that will have fast timing capabilities, such as XEUS [185Jump To The Next Citation Point], will be able to discover a large spectrum of quasi-periodic oscillations from each source. Such observations will constrain significantly the underlying physical model for these oscillations, which remains the most important source of uncertainty in using fast variability phenomena in probing strong gravitational fields.

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