Modeling of gamma-ray pulsar light curves using the force-free magnetic field

Xue Ning Bai, Anatoly Spitkovsky

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200 Scopus citations


Gamma-ray emission from pulsars has long been modeled using a vacuum dipole field. This approximation ignores changes in the field structure caused by the magnetospheric plasma and strong plasma currents. We present the first results of gamma-ray pulsar light-curve modeling using the more realistic field taken from three-dimensional force-free (FF) magnetospheric simulations. Having the geometry of the field, we apply several prescriptions for the location of the emission zone, comparing the light curves to observations. We find that when the emission region is chosen according to the conventional slot-gap (or two-pole caustic) prescription, the model fails to produce double-peak pulse profiles, mainly because the size of the polar cap in the FF magnetosphere is larger than the vacuum field polar cap. This suppresses caustic formation in the inner magnetosphere. The conventional outer-gap model is capable of producing only one peak under general conditions because a large fraction of open field lines does not cross the null charge surface. We propose a novel "separatrix layer" model, where the high-energy emission originates from a thin layer on the open field lines just inside of the separatrix that bounds the open flux tube. The emission from this layer generates two strong caustics on the sky map due to the effect we term "Sky Map Stagnation" (SMS). It is related to the fact that the FF field asymptotically approaches the field of a rotating split monopole, and the photons emitted on such field lines in the outer magnetosphere arrive to the observer in phase. The double-peak light curve is a natural consequence of SMS. We show that most features of the currently available gamma-ray pulsar light curves can be reasonably well reproduced and explained with the separatrix layer model using the FF field. Association of the emission region with the current sheet will guide more detailed future studies of the magnetospheric acceleration physics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1282-1301
Number of pages20
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Gamma rays: general
  • Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD)
  • Pulsars: general
  • Stars: magnetic field


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