Data Centre for Astrophysics
Astronomy Department of the University of Geneva

Origin of the X-ray off-states in Vela X-1


Vela X-1 is the prototype of the classical sgHMXB systems. Recent continuous and long monitoring campaigns revealed a large hard X-rays variability amplitude with strong flares and off-states. This activity has been interpreted invoking clumpy stellar winds and/or magnetic gating mechanisms. We are probing if the observed behaviour could be explained by unstable hydrodynamic flows close to the neutron star rather than the more exotic phenomena. We have used the hydrodynamic code VH-1 to simulate the flow of the stellar wind with high temporal resolution and to compare the predicted accretion rate with the observed light-curves. The simulation results are similar to the observed variability. Off-states are predicted with a duration of 5 to 120 minutes corresponding to transient low density bubbles forming around the neutron star. Oscillations of the accretion rate with a typical period of ∼ 6800 sec are generated in our simulations and observed. They correspond to the complex motion of a bow shock, moving either towards or away from the neutron star. Flares are also produced by the simulations up to a level of 1037 erg/s. We have qualitatively reproduced the hard X-ray variations observed in Vela X-1 with hydrodynamic instabilities predicted by a simple model. More sophisticated phenomena, such as clumpy winds or the magnetic gating mechanism, are not excluded but not required to explain the basic phenomenology.