Black widow formation by pulsar irradiation and sustained magnetic braking

Sivan Ginzburg, Eliot Quataert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Black widows are millisecond pulsars with low-mass companions, a few per cent the mass of the sun, on orbits of several hours. These companions are presumably the remnants of main-sequence stars that lost their mass through a combination of Roche lobe overflow and ablation by the host pulsar's high-energy radiation. While ablation itself is too weak to significantly reduce the mass of the companion star, the ablated wind couples to its magnetic field, removes orbital angular momentum, and thus maintains stable Roche lobe overflow. We use the mesa stellar evolution code, complemented by analytical estimates, to track initially main-sequence companions as they are reduced to a fraction of their original mass by this ablation-driven magnetic braking. We argue that magnetic braking remains effective even for low-mass companions. A key ingredient of our model is that the irradiating luminosity of the pulsar Lirr deposits energy in the companion's atmosphere and thereby slows down its Kelvin-Helmholtz cooling. We find that the high-energy luminosities measured by Fermi Lirr=0.1-3⊙ can explain the span of black widow orbital periods. The same Lirr range reproduces the companions' night-side temperatures, which cluster around 3000 K, as inferred from optical light curves.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1592-1603
Number of pages12
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Binaries: close
  • Pulsars: general
  • Stars: evolution


Dive into the research topics of 'Black widow formation by pulsar irradiation and sustained magnetic braking'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this