Long-term cycles in cosmic X-ray sources
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Most of what we know about galactic X-ray binaries comes from their time variation, particularly periodic variations corresponding to neutron star rotation, and binary motion. Longer cycles or quasi-cycles are much harder to observe because of the shortage of instrumentation suitable for long-term monitoring. Nonetheless, cycle with periods up to a few years have been seen in several galactic binaries.
Cycles of ∼ 30–300 days have been confirmed for four high-mass systems, LMC X-4, Her X-1, SS433, and Cyg X-1, and are suspected in several others. These cycles are observed in both the X-ray and optical bands, and represent cyclic variations in both the inner and outer parts of the accretion disk. Some component of these systems is precessing, but we are not certain which. It could be a misaligned companion star; the outer rim of the accretion disk, driven by radiative feedback; or the neutron star.
Several low-mass X-ray binaries have quasi-periodic cycles, with periods ranging from 1/2 to 2 years. The amplitude of modulation ranges between ∼ 50 and 100%, i.e., both ‘persistent’ and ‘transient’ objects fall into this class. This activity is reminiscent of the superoutburst cycles of the SU UMa cataclysmic variables, and may be caused by similar mass-transfer instabilities.
Periodic outbursts in the Be/neutron star systems seem to result from variable mass transfer in a wide, eccentric orbit. The relationship between the orbital cycle and the flux outbursts, however, is not well understood, and even the equivalence of the outburst and binary cycles remains hypothetical for most objects. Most likely, the periodic outbursts result from enhanced mass transfer at periastron.
Compared to other aspects of X-ray astronomy, long-term activity has been much less intensively studied by both observers and theoreticians. A simple all-sky monitor in permanent operation could provide for the X-ray sky the same kind of data base provided to optical observers by the Harvard plates.
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