Astronomers create 2D-map of 'disk winds' in a distant neutron star system

MIT astronomers have observed a wider swath of disk winds in the binary system Hercules X-1 for the first time.
Mrigakshi Dixit
MIT astronomers mapped the “disk winds” associated with the accretion disk around Hercules X-1.
MIT astronomers mapped the “disk winds” associated with the accretion disk around Hercules X-1.

Jose-Luis Olivares, MIT. Based on an image of Hercules X-1 by D. Klochkov, European Space Agency. 

Though black holes are invisible, a variety of phenomena occur within and around them that shape the host galaxy. One example is disk winds, which arise from the accretion disk of a black hole or neutron star. An accretion disk is a thin band of stellar gas and dust pulled from a nearby star.

The spinning disk creates powerful winds that push and pull on the rotating plasma. These disk winds can provide information about how supermassive black holes shape entire galaxies. 

Now, a team of MIT astronomers has observed a wider swath of winds in the binary system Hercules X-1 for the first time. This resulted in the creation of a two-dimensional wind map.

Unique wobble made it possible

It's a faraway system in which a neutron star is ejecting stellar material from a sun-like star. The warped accretion disk wobbles as it rotates around the system's central neutron star, revealing a more comprehensive view of the winds.

Astronomers have had a difficult time studying disk winds. This is because they have only seen very narrow winds and not wider ones. However, because of the unique wobble of this neutron star's accretion disk, the team was able to study the enigmatic winds in great detail as the disk moved up and down during rotation.

“The disk is really wobbling over time every 35 days, and the winds are originating somewhere in the disk and crossing our line of sight at different heights above the disk with time. That’s a very unique property of this system which allows us to better understand its vertical wind properties,” said Peter Kosec, a postdoc at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, in a statement.

Disk winds have been observed most frequently in X-ray binaries. However, it has been unknown how these winds emerged from black holes or neutron star systems.

Some experts theorize that magnetic fields could shred the disk, propelling material outward in the same direction as the wind. Others suspect that neutron star radiation is to blame for this phenomenon.

The wobbling accretion disk on the Hercules X-1 provides a better understanding of the disk winds.

How the winds were observed 

This research was carried out with the help of two X-ray telescopes: the European Space Agency's XMM Newton and NASA's Chandra Observatory. 

The new map reveals information about the vertical shape, structure, and velocity of the wind (calculated around hundreds of kilometers per second, or about a million miles per hour). Researchers were able to determine the temperature and density of winds at various heights by measuring X-ray emissions. They discovered that the wind rises from the disk at a 12-degree angle. While winds were found to be colder and weaker at higher altitudes above the disk.

Astronomers can use this map to learn about how disk winds influence the formation and evolution of galaxies.

“In the future, we could map disk winds in a range of objects and determine how wind properties change, for instance, with the mass of a black hole, or with how much material it is accreting. That will help determine how black holes and neutron stars influence our universe,” said Kosec.

The study has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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