Uncertainties of modeling gamma-ray pulsar light curves using vacuum dipole magnetic field

Xue Ning Bai, Anatoly Spitkovsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Current models of pulsar gamma-ray emission use the magnetic field of a rotating dipole in vacuum as a first approximation to the shape of a plasma-filled pulsar magnetosphere. In this paper, we revisit the question of gamma-ray light curve formation in pulsars in order to ascertain the robustness of the "two-pole caustic (TPC)" and "outer gap (OG)" models based on the vacuum magnetic field. We point out an inconsistency in the literature on the use of the relativistic aberration formula, where in several works the shape of the vacuum field was treated as known in the instantaneous corotating frame, rather than in the laboratory frame. With the corrected formula, we find that the peaks in the light curves predicted from the TPC model using the vacuum field are less sharp. The sharpness of the peaks in the OG model is less affected by this change, but the range of magnetic inclination angles and viewing geometries resulting in double-peaked light curves is reduced. In a realistic magnetosphere, the modification of field structure near the light cylinder (LC) due to plasma effects may change the shape of the polar cap and the location of the emission zones. We study the sensitivity of the light curves to different shapes of the polar cap for static and retarded vacuum dipole fields. In particular, we consider polar caps traced by the last open field lines and compare them to circular polar caps. We find that the TPC model is very sensitive to the shape of the polar cap, and a circular polar cap can lead to four peaks of emission. The OG model is less affected by different polar cap shapes, but is subject to big uncertainties of applying the vacuum field near the LC. We conclude that deviations from the vacuum field can lead to large uncertainties in pulse shapes, and a more realistic force-free field should be applied to the study of pulsar high-energy emission.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1270-1281
Number of pages12
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


Dive into the research topics of 'Uncertainties of modeling gamma-ray pulsar light curves using vacuum dipole magnetic field'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this