Propagation of thermonuclear flames on rapidly rotating neutron stars: Extreme weather during type I X-ray bursts

Anatoly Spitkovsky, Yuri Levin, Greg Ushomirsky

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

150 Scopus citations


We analyze the global hydrodynamic flow in the ocean of an accreting, rapidly rotating, nonmagnetic neutron star in a low-mass X-ray binary during a type I X-ray burst. We use both analytical arguments and numerical simulations of simplified models for ocean burning. Our analysis extends previous work by taking into account the rapid rotation of the star and the lift-up of the burning ocean during the burst. We find a new regime for the spreading of a nuclear burning front, where the flame is carried along a coherent shear flow across the front. If turbulent viscosity is weak, the speed of flame propagation is vflame ∼ (gh)1/2/ftn ∼ 20 km s-1, where h is the scale height of the burning ocean, g is the local gravitational acceleration, tn is the timescale for fast nuclear burning during the burst, and f is the Coriolis parameter, i.e., twice the local vertical component of the spin vector. If turbulent viscosity is dynamically important, the flame speed increases and reaches the maximum value, vflamemax ∼ (gh/ftn)1/2 ∼ 300 km s-1, when the eddy overturn frequency is comparable to the Coriolis parameter f. We show that, as a result of rotationally reduced gravity, the thermonuclear runaway which ignites the ocean is likely to begin on the equator. The equatorial belt is ignited at the beginning of the burst, and the flame then propagates from the equator to the poles. Inhomogeneous cooling (equator first, poles second) of the hot ashes drives strong zonal currents which may be unstable to the formation of Jupiter-type vortices; we conjecture that these vortices are responsible for coherent modulation of X-ray flux in the tails of some bursts. We consider the effect of strong zonal currents on the frequency of modulation of the X-ray flux and show that the large values of the frequency drifts observed in some bursts can be accounted for within our model combined with the model of homogeneous radial expansion. Additionally, if vortices or other inhomogeneities are trapped in the forward zonal flows around the propagating burning front, fast chirps with large frequency ranges (∼ 25-500 Hz) may be detectable during the burst rise. Finally, we argue that an MHD dynamo within the burning front can generate a small-scale magnetic field, which may enforce vertically rigid flow in the front's wake and can explain the coherence of oscillations in the burst tail.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1018-1038
Number of pages21
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2 I
StatePublished - Feb 20 2002

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Accretion, accretion disks
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Instabilities
  • Nuclear reactions, nucleosynthesis, abundances
  • Stars: neutron
  • X-rays: bursts


Dive into the research topics of 'Propagation of thermonuclear flames on rapidly rotating neutron stars: Extreme weather during type I X-ray bursts'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this