Volume 652, August 2021
|Number of page(s)||47|
|Section||Stellar structure and evolution|
|Published online||17 August 2021|
Revisiting the archetypical wind accretor Vela X-1 in depth
Case study of a well-known X-ray binary and the limits of our knowledge
European Space Agency (ESA), European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC), Camino Bajo del Castillo s/n, 28692 Villanueva de la Cañada, Madrid, Spain
2 Institut de Planétologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble, 414 Rue de la Piscine, 38400 Saint-Martin-d’Hères, France
3 Centre for Mathematical Plasma Astrophysics, KU Leuven, Celestijnenlaan 200B, 3001 Leuven, Belgium
4 Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, 3001 Leuven, Belgium
5 Instituto de Física de Cantabria (CSIC-Universidad de Cantabria), 39005 Santander, Spain
6 Quasar Science Resources S.L for European Space Agency (ESA), European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC), Camino Bajo del Castillo s/n, 28692 Villanueva de la Cañada, Madrid, Spain
7 Institut für Astronomie und Astrophysik (IAAT), Universität Tübingen, Sand 1, 72076 Tübingen, Germany
8 Armagh Observatory and Planetarium, College Hill, Armagh, BT61 9DG Northern Ireland, UK
9 Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, Science Park 904, 1098 XH, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
10 Department of Physics, Astrophysics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
11 Centro de Astrobiología, CSIC-INTA, Campus ESAC, Camino bajo del castillo s/n, 28692 Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain
12 Vitrociset Belgium for European Space Agency (ESA), European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC), Camino Bajo del Castillo s/n, 28692 Villanueva de la Cañada, Madrid, Spain
13 Aurora Technology BV for European Space Agency (ESA), European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC), Camino Bajo del Castillo s/n, 28692 Villanueva de la Cañada, Madrid, Spain
Accepted: 21 April 2021
Context. The Vela X-1 system is one of the best-studied X-ray binaries because it was detected early, has persistent X-ray emission, and a rich phenomenology at many wavelengths. The system is frequently quoted as the archetype of wind-accreting high-mass X-ray binaries, and its parameters are referred to as typical examples. Specific values for these parameters have frequently been used in subsequent studies, however, without full consideration of alternatives in the literature, even more so when results from one field of astronomy (e.g., stellar wind parameters) are used in another (e.g., X-ray astronomy). The issues and considerations discussed here for this specific, very well-known example will apply to various other X-ray binaries and to the study of their physics.
Aims. We provide a robust compilation and synthesis of the accumulated knowledge about Vela X-1 as a solid baseline for future studies, adding new information where available. Because this overview is targeted at a broader readership, we include more background information on the physics of the system and on methods than is usually done. We also attempt to identify specific avenues of future research that could help to clarify open questions or determine certain parameters better than is currently possible.
Methods. We explore the vast literature for Vela X-1 and on modeling efforts based on this system or close analogs. We describe the evolution of our knowledge of the system over the decades and provide overview information on the essential parameters. We also add information derived from public data or catalogs to the data taken from the literature, especially data from the Gaia EDR3 release.
Results. We derive an updated distance to Vela X-1 and update the spectral classification for HD 77518. At least around periastron, the supergiant star may be very close to filling its Roche lobe. Constraints on the clumpiness of the stellar wind from the supergiant star have improved, but discrepancies persist. The orbit is in general very well determined, but a slight difference exists between the latest ephemerides. The orbital inclination remains the least certain factor and contributes significantly to the uncertainty in the neutron star mass. Estimates for the stellar wind terminal velocity and acceleration law have evolved strongly toward lower velocities over the years. Recent results with wind velocities at the orbital distance in the range of or lower than the orbital velocity of the neutron star support the idea of transient wind-captured disks around the neutron star magnetosphere, for which observational and theoretical indications have emerged. Hydrodynamic models and observations are consistent with an accretion wake trailing the neutron star.
Conclusions. With its extremely rich multiwavelength observational data and wealth of related theoretical studies, Vela X-1 is an excellent laboratory for exploring the physics of accreting X-ray binaries, especially in high-mass systems. Nevertheless, much room remains to improve the accumulated knowledge. On the observational side, well-coordinated multiwavelength observations and observing campaigns addressing the intrinsic variability are required. New opportunities will arise through new instrumentation, from optical and near-infrared interferometry to the upcoming X-ray calorimeters and X-ray polarimeters. Improved models of the stellar wind and flow of matter should account for the non-negligible effect of the orbital eccentricity and the nonspherical shape of HD 77581. There is a need for realistic multidimensional models of radiative transfer in the UV and X-rays in order to better understand the wind acceleration and effect of ionization, but these models remain very challenging. Improved magnetohydrodynamic models covering a wide range of scales are required to improve our understanding of the plasma-magnetosphere coupling, and they are thus a key factor for understanding the variability of the X-ray flux and the torques applied to the neutron star. A full characterization of the X-ray emission from the accretion column remains another so far unsolved challenge.
Key words: X-rays: individuals: Vela X-1 / X-rays: binaries / stars: winds, outflows / accretion, accretion disks
© P. Kretschmar et al. 2021
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