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Twinkle, Twinkle (really fast!), Little Star

Twinkle, Twinkle (really fast!), Little Star

12 July 1996

The Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) has discovered neutron stars that emit streams of X-rays pulsing over 1,000 times a second. The pulses are not strictly periodic, but vary slightly from cycle to cycle. Astronomers call them "quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs)". This just means that the pulses are almost, but not quite, periodic.

A neutron star is the superdense remains of an exploded star that gravitationally collapsed back in on itself to form a small, compressed core of neutrons. It is not unusual for a neutron star to emit X-rays. When a neutron star is in a binary system with a sun-like star, matter is gravitationally pulled off this stellar companion. As the matter falls toward the neutron star, it emits X-rays. We can think of it this way: "It's the sound of matter going splat," says UC Berkeley astrophysicist Jonathan Arons.

Sometimes the emitted X-rays are pulsed, or modulated, by the spinning of the neutron star. The pulse period seen in the X-ray emission is exactly the same as the spin period of the star. However, another type of pulsation, the QPO, was found in the mid-1980s by the European X-ray Observatory Satellite (EXOSAT). The cycle times of these QPOs were between 6 and 20 times a second for most of the sources in which such behavior was observed. It was also noticed that the average period of the oscillations varied as the overall X-ray brightness of the source varied. The brighter the source was in X-rays, the shorter the QPO period. Scientists would say this as "the central frequency varies as source intensity."

It was theorized that this modulation of X-rays was due to the difference in frequency between the matter's orbital period around the neutron star and the spin period of the neutron star. This difference, called the beat frequency, would explain the 6 - 20 Hz QPOs that EXOSAT observed. It was hard to confirm this theory, however, because most of the systems in which the QPOs were found did not allow for a direct measurement of the neutron star spin period.

Because of its much higher sensitivity and time resolution, RXTE has not only discovered QPOs at much higher frequencies than 6-20 Hz, it may also have verified the "beat frequency" model. RXTE has directly observed the neutron star spin frequency, the frequency of the orbiting material, and the beat frequency for a particular X-ray source. Named 4U 1728-34, the frequency of the orbiting material was found to be around 1100 Hz, the neutron star rotation frequency to be 363 Hz, and the beat frequency (or difference between the two) to be around 700 Hz. And, yet, these numbers are a large step up from 6 and 20 Hz. X-rays pulses which happen as often as 1,100 times a second are indeed unusual. As an alternate explanation to the beat frequency theory, some scientists now speculate instead that these rapid QPOs are caused by hot bubbles of radiation bursting on the neutron star's surface and colliding with the infalling matter.

As RXTE continues to observe the high-energy Universe over the years to come, astronomers hope to get the data which will not only allow them to understand what is happening, but why, and how.


A service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA/GSFC

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