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Studies of meutron star X-ray binaries


Neutron stars represent the endpoint in stellar evolution for stars with initial masses between about 3 and 8 solar masses. They are the densest non-singularities in the universe, cramming more than a solar mass of matter into a sphere with a radius of about 10 km. Such a large mass-to- radius ratio implies deep potential wells, so that when mass transfer is taking place about 10% of the rest-mass is liberated as gravitational binding energy, resulting in prodigious amounts of X-ray emission that contains valuable information on the physical characteristics in accreting binary systems. Much of my research in this dissertation focuses on the spectroscopic and timing properties of the canonical thermonuclear bursting source GS 1826-238. By measuring the relationship between the X- ray flux (which is assumed to trace the accretion rate onto the stellar surface) and the time intervals between subsequent bursts, I find that although the intervals usually decreased proportionately as the persistent flux increased, a few measurements of the flux-recurrence time relationship were significant outliers. Accompanying spectral and timing changes strongly suggest that the accretion disk extends down to smaller radial distances from the source during these atypical episodes. This result is important for understanding the nature of accretion flows around neutron stars because it indicates that accretion disks probably evaporate at some distance from the neutron star surface at lower accretion rates. I also contribute to our understanding of two newly discovered and heavily-absorbed pulsars (neutron stars with strong magnetic fields) by determining the orbital parameters of the systems through pulse timing analysis. Orbital phase-resolved spectroscopy of one source revealed evidence for an "accretion wake" trailing the pulsar through its orbit, showing that X-rays emanating from the surface can ionize the stellar wind in its vicinity. Finally, I develop an innovative application of dust scattering halos (diffuse emission surrounding X-ray sources, resulting from photons scattering from dust grains) to geometrically determine the distance and the distribution of dust along the line of sight to X-ray sources. The distance is clearly important for inferring the absolute luminosities of systems from measured fluxes, and knowledge of the distribution of dust can further understanding of the interstellar medium

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