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Chandra Discovers the X-ray Signature of a Powerful Wind from a Galactic Microquasar

November 8, 2000

PSU/MIT Press Release

Artist's impression of an X-ray binary system
Artist's impression of an X-ray binary system

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has detected, for the first time in X rays, a stellar fingerprint known as a P Cygni profile--the distinctive spectral signature of a powerful wind produced by an object in space. The discovery reveals a 4.5-million-mile-per-hour wind coming from a highly compact pair of stars in our galaxy, report researchers from Penn State and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a paper they will present on 8 November 2000 during a meeting of the High-Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, Hawaii. The paper also has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"To our knowledge, these are the first P Cygni profiles reported in X rays," say researchers Niel Brandt, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, and Norbert S. Schulz, research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team made the discovery during their first observation of a binary-star system with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which was launched into space in July 1999. The system, known as Circinus X-1, is located about 20,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Circinus near the Southern Cross. It contains a super-dense neutron star in orbit around a normal fusion-burning star like our Sun. Although Circinus X-1 was discovered in 1971, many properties of this system remain mysterious because Circinus X-1 lies in the galactic plane where obscuring dust and gas have blocked its effective study in many wavelengths.

The P Cygni spectral profile, previously detected primarily at ultraviolet and optical wavelengths but never before in X rays, is the textbook tool astronomers rely on for probing stellar winds. The profile looks like the outline of a roller coaster, with one really big hill and valley in the middle, on a data plot with velocity on one axis and the flow rate of photons per second on the other. It is named after the famous star P Cygni, in which such profiles have been observed for over one hundred years. "When you see a P Cygni profile, you immediately know the object you are observing is producing a powerful outflow," Brandt says. Chandra is the first X-ray observatory capable of capturing data of sufficiently high resolution to reveal an X-ray P Cygni profile.

Brandt and Schulz say their discovery occurred because they were able to use Chandra continuously for one-third of a day to observe Circinus X-1, plus its signal in X rays is generally very bright, partly because it is relatively nearby in our own Galaxy. P Cygni lines at ultraviolet or optical wavelengths had not been previously seen from Circinus X-1 because a large amount of dust in the galactic plane lies between Earth and this system and this dust is an efficient absorber of ultraviolet and optical light. However, the energetic X rays created by Circinus X-1 could easily penetrate through the obscuring dust and gas--similar to the way medical X-rays on Earth can penetrate through people's bodies. "We were hoping to detect some kind of X-ray line emission from the accreting neutron star in Circinus X-1, but it caught us totally by surprise to observe a complex emission structure like a P Cygni profile in high-energy X rays." schulz says. "This detection clearly marks a new area in X-ray astrophysics, where we will be able to study dynamical structures in the universe like we currently do at ultraviolet or optical wavelengths."

Brandt and Schulz used two of Chandra's instruments, known together as the High-Energy Transmission Grating Spectrometer (HETGS), to detect the X rays and produce a high-resolution X-ray spectrum of Circinus X-1. This spectrum is analogous to the rainbow we can see at optical wavelengths. "Chandra's X-ray spectrum is 50 times more detailed than previous X-ray observatories could obtain," Schulz says. First, the super-fine transmission gratings acted like a prism to separate the X-rays into discrete energy bands. Then, the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) was used as a camera to record the X-ray spectral data, which computers processed and plotted onto a graph, revealing the P Cygni signature. Specific elements, such as silicon or iron, emit specific X-ray wavelengths, revealing their presence in the emitting material to astronomers.

Before the observation with Chandra, astronomers knew the force of gravity in an X-ray binary system strips material off the surface of the normal star and then pulls this material toward the surface of the super-dense neutron star, forming a relatively flat spiraling cloud of gas called an accretion disk. The detailed Chandra data revealed, in addition, that the radiation and rotational forces in the Circinus X-1 disk are blasting some of the inward-spiraling gas back out into space in a powerful wind, which creates the P Cygni lines in the object's spectrum.

P Cygni profiles carry much diagnostic information that is hard to obtain in other ways--such as how fast the wind is moving, how much material it contains, how dense it is, and its chemical composition. "The wind coming out of Circinus X-1 is composed of gas that contains highly ionized atoms of silicon, neon, iron, magnesium, and sulfur, and its peak observed velocity is about 4.5 million miles per hour--so fast it would cross the entire radius of the Earth in about three seconds," Brandt reports.

The astronomers used Doppler techniques that detect positive velocities from material moving away from Earth, with signals shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, and negative velocities from material that is coming toward Earth, with signals shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum. "We learned these two stars clearly interact dramatically with each other while this wind is blowing outward at high velocity, which appears to be causing certain properties of the wind to change over time," Schulz says.

The researchers produced a time-lapse movie of one of their spectra, which is available on the World Wide Web, along with other information about the discovery, at

A binary-star system 20,000 light years from Earth in the constellation of Circinus.
Animation showing the strong variability over time of one of the P Cygni spectral lines seen by Chandra from Circinus X-1 (Click Image to View Animation)
Credit: Niel Brandt and Norbert Schulz
(Note: This animation is the same as the one referred to in the above paragraph)

Atoms irradiated with energetic X-rays can emit as well as absorb them at specific wavelengths. Whether astronomers observe emission or absorption depends on the state and environment of the irradiated atoms, so these processes carry vital information about the emitting and absorbing material. Regarding the time-lapse movie, Schulz commented "You can see this profile flipping up and down between a strong emission line on the red side and a strong absorption line on the blue side. We don't yet fully understand what this means, but it does indicate the dynamic nature of this system. We see indications that sometimes either the emitting or the absorbing region gets obscured by matter so thick that not even X rays can penetrate it."

The researchers say one reason their discovery that Circinus X-1 has a high-velocity wind is important is that this small two-star system now has striking similarities with a type of luminous active galaxy known as a broad-absorption-line quasar. Broad-absorption-line quasars are galaxies containing a violent centers powered by supermassive black holes. "This type of galaxy has an accretion disk circling its black hole plus very powerful winds created when radiation pushes material off of the disk and out into space," Brandt says. "The disk winds from broad-absorption-line quasars create P Cygni lines in the spectra of these objects. Circinus X-1, with the newly detected X-ray P Cygni profiles, appears in many ways to be a microscopic version of a broad-absorption-line quasar."

"Although a typical AGN has a roughly ten-million-solar-mass black hole at its center while the Circinus X-1 system has a neutron star only slightly more massive than our Sun, both systems must obey the same laws of physics," Brandt says. "Gas is gas and gravity is gravity and that's all there is to it--you put gas and gravity together and they make a disk and often, apparently, a disk-generated wind." The researchers hope X-ray P Cygni profiles will be found to be a fairly common property of X-ray binaries containing neutron stars and black holes. "If we can find X-ray P Cygni profiles in more systems, we can learn a great deal about the geometry and the dynamics of the winds these systems emit," Schulz says. "Due to the penetrating nature of X rays, X-ray P Cygni lines have the significant advantage that they can be used to probe winds even from systems that are heavily obscured by dust along the line of sight."

The High-Energy Transmission Grating Spectrometer was built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Bruno Rossi Professor Claude Canizares as Principal Investigator. The ACIS X-ray camera was conceived and developed for NASA by Penn State and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the leadership of Gordon Garmire, Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State. The observation of Circinus X-1 was part of the first round of Chandra's guest observer program. The guest observer program is a competitive one open to the World science community.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program. TRW Inc., Redondo Beach, California, is the prime contractor for the spacecraft. The Smithsonian's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Circinus X-1 Handout

Constellation Circinus

To follow Chandra's progress, visit the Chandra site at:


This research was supported by the Chandra X-ray Center, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

This is a joint press release from Penn State and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Digital images and movies are available on the World Wide Web at

Science Contacts:
Niel Brandt: 814-865-3509
Norbert S. Schulz: 617-258-5767
Barbara K. Kennedy (PIO at Penn State): 814-863-4682
Deborah Halber (PIO at MIT): 617-253-2700 or 617-258-9276