Testing theories for longterm accretion variability in black hole X-ray binaries
Many X-ray sources are now understood to be ``black hole X-ray binaries'' in which a stellar remnant black hole either tidally ``squeezes'' gas off a companion star, or pulls in some fraction the companion's wind. This gas can drain inward through a dense, thin disk characterized by thermalized radiation, or a sparse and radiatively-inefficient flow, or some combination of the two. Observations at other energies often provide crucial information, but our primary tools to study accretion, especially closest to the black hole, are X-ray spectra and their time evolution. This evolution includes numerous behaviors spanning orders of magnitude in timescale and luminosity, and also hints at spatial structure since draining is generally faster at smaller radii. This includes variability at time-scales of weeks to months which remains difficult to explain despite an abundance of possible variability mechanisms since direct simulations covering the full spatial and temporal range remain impractical.
After reviewing general aspects of accretion, I present both more and less familiar forms of longterm variability. Based on these, I argue the problem involves finding a physical process (or combination) that can generate repeatable yet adjustable cycles in luminosity and evolution of low and high energy spectral components, while letting the ionization instability dominate conventional outbursts. Specific models examined include: disks embedded in, and interacting with, hot, sparse flows, and another instability that quenches viscous-draining of the disk at more fundamental level. Testing these theories, alone and in combination, motivates building a very general and simplified numerical model presented here. I find that two-phase flow models still predict excessive recondensation in LMC X-3 among other problems, while the viscosity-quenching instability may account for rapid drops and slow recoveries in disk accretion rate but also likely requires diffusivity orders of magnitude above the Spitzer value.
I also present complementary work on how total mass supply can vary (on day-week timescales) when the companion is irradiated by accretion-generated X-rays as the model is built with the intention (and features) to be used with more detailed disk models.