Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

A radio-pulsing white dwarf binary star


White dwarfs are compact stars, similar in size to Earth but approximately 200,000 times more massive1. Isolated white dwarfs emit most of their power from ultraviolet to near-infrared wavelengths, but when in close orbits with less dense stars, white dwarfs can strip material from their companions and the resulting mass transfer can generate atomic line2 and X-ray3 emission, as well as near- and mid-infrared radiation if the white dwarf is magnetic4. However, even in binaries, white dwarfs are rarely detected at far-infrared or radio frequencies. Here we report the discovery of a white dwarf/cool star binary that emits from X-ray to radio wavelengths. The star, AR Scorpii (henceforth AR Sco), was classified in the early 1970s as a δ-Scuti star5, a common variety of periodic variable star. Our observations reveal instead a 3.56-hour period close binary, pulsing in brightness on a period of 1.97 minutes. The pulses are so intense that AR Sco’s optical flux can increase by a factor of four within 30 seconds, and they are also detectable at radio frequencies. They reflect the spin of a magnetic white dwarf, which we find to be slowing down on a 107-year timescale. The spin-down power is an order of magnitude larger than that seen in electromagnetic radiation, which, together with an absence of obvious signs of accretion, suggests that AR Sco is primarily spin-powered. Although the pulsations are driven by the white dwarf’s spin, they mainly originate from the cool star. AR Sco’s broadband spectrum is characteristic of synchrotron radiation, requiring relativistic electrons. These must either originate from near the white dwarf or be generated in situ at the M star through direct interaction with the white dwarf’s magnetosphere.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: AR Sco’s optical brightness and radial velocity curve.
Figure 2: Ultraviolet, optical, infrared and radio fluxes of AR Sco.
Figure 3: Fourier amplitudes of the ultraviolet, optical, infrared and radio fluxes of AR Sco versus temporal frequency.
Figure 4: The wide band SED of AR Sco.


  1. 1

    Althaus, L. G., Córsico, A. H., Isern, J. & García-Berro, E. Evolutionary and pulsational properties of white dwarf stars. Astron. Astrophys. Rev. 18, 471–566 (2010)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Szkody, P. et al. Cataclysmic variables from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. VIII. The final year (2007–2008). Astron. J. 142, 181–189 (2011)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Revnivtsev, M., Sazonov, S., Krivonos, R., Ritter, H. & Sunyaev, R. Properties of the galactic population of cataclysmic variables in hard X-rays. Astron. Astrophys. 489, 1121–1127 (2008)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Parsons, S. G. et al. A magnetic white dwarf in a detached eclipsing binary. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 436, 241–252 (2013)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Satyvaldiev, V. On seventeen variable stars. Astron. Tsirk. 633, 7–8 (1971)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Dhillon, V. S. et al. ULTRACAM: an ultrafast, triple-beam CCD camera for high-speed astrophysics. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 378, 825–840 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Drake, A. J. et al. First results from the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey. Astrophys. J. 696, 870–884 (2009)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Koester, D. White dwarf spectra and atmosphere models. Mem. Soc. Astron. Ital. 81, 921–931 (2010)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Husser, T.-O. et al. A new extensive library of PHOENIX stellar atmospheres and synthetic spectra. Astron. Astrophys. 553, A6 (2013)

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Chevalier, C., Ilovaisky, S. A., van Paradijs, J., Pedersen, H. & van der Klis, M. Optical studies of transient low-mass X-ray binaries in quiescence. I — Centaurus X-4: orbital period, light curve, spectrum and models for the system. Astron. Astrophys. 210, 114–126 (1989)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Thorstensen, J. R., Lépine, S. & Shara, M. Parallax and distance estimates for twelve cataclysmic variable stars. Astron. J. 136, 2107–2114 (2008)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Bradt, H. V. D. & McClintock, J. E. The optical counterparts of compact galactic X-ray sources. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 21, 13–66 (1983)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Manchester, R. N., Hobbs, G. B., Teoh, A. & Hobbs, M. The Australia Telescope National Facility Pulsar Catalogue. Astron. J. 129, 1993–2006 (2005)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Patterson, J. The DQ Herculis stars. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pacif. 106, 209–238 (1994)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Oruru, B. & Meintjes, P. J. X-ray characteristics and the spectral energy distribution of AE Aquarii. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 421, 1557–1568 (2012)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Bookbinder, J. A. & Lamb, D. Q. Discovery of radio emission from AE Aquarii. Astrophys. J. 323, L131–L135 (1987)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Bastian, T. S., Beasley, A. J. & Bookbinder, J. A. A search for radio pulsations from AE Aquarii. Astrophys. J. 461, 1016–1020 (1996)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Patterson, J. & Steiner, J. E. H2215–086 — King of the DQ Herculis stars. Astrophys. J. 264, L61–L64 (1983)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Pretorius, M. L. & Mukai, K. Constraints on the space density of intermediate polars from the Swift-BAT survey. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 442, 2580–2585 (2014)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Wynn, G. A., King, A. R. & Horne, K. A magnetic propeller in the cataclysmic variable AE Aquarii. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 286, 436–446 (1997)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Meintjes, P. J. & Venter, L. A. The diamagnetic blob propeller in AE Aquarii and non-thermal radio to mid-infrared emission. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 360, 573–582 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Berger, E. et al. Discovery of radio emission from the brown dwarf LP944–20. Nature 410, 338–340 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Hallinan, G. et al. Periodic bursts of coherent radio emission from an ultracool dwarf. Astrophys. J. 663, L25–L28 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Charpinet, S., Fontaine, G. & Brassard, P. Seismic evidence for the loss of stellar angular momentum before the white-dwarf stage. Nature 461, 501–503 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Renedo, I. et al. New cooling sequences for old white dwarfs. Astrophys. J. 717, 183–195 (2010)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Hessman, F. V., Gänsicke, B. T. & Mattei, J. A. The history and source of mass-transfer variations in AM Herculis. Astron. Astrophys. 361, 952–958 (2000)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Manser, C. J. & Gänsicke, B. T. Spectroscopy of the enigmatic short-period cataclysmic variable IR Com in an extended low state. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 442, L23–L27 (2014)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Archibald, A. M. et al. A radio pulsar/X-ray binary link. Science 324, 1411–1414 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Papitto, A. et al. Swings between rotation and accretion power in a binary millisecond pulsar. Nature 501, 517–520 (2013)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Becker, R. H., White, R. L. & Helfand, D. J. The FIRST Survey: faint images of the radio sky at twenty centimeters. Astrophys. J. 450, 559–577 (1995)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Skrutskie, M. F. et al. The Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Astron. J. 131, 1163–1183 (2006)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Pilbratt, G. L. et al. Herschel Space Observatory—an ESA facility for far-infrared and submillimetre astronomy. Astron. Astrophys. 518, L1–L6 (2010)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Wright, E. L. et al. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE): mission description and initial on-orbit performance. Astron. J. 140, 1868–1881 (2010)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  34. 34

    Werner, M. W. et al. The Spitzer Space Telescope mission. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 154, 1–9 (2004)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  35. 35

    Murphy, T. et al. The Australia Telescope 20 GHz Survey: the source catalogue. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 402, 2403–2423 (2010)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    De Breuck, C., Tang, Y., de Bruyn, A. G., Röttgering, H. & van Breugel, W. A sample of ultra steep spectrum sources selected from the Westerbork In the Southern Hemisphere (WISH) survey. Astron. Astrophys. 394, 59–69 (2002)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  37. 37

    Dhillon, V. S. et al. ULTRASPEC: a high-speed imaging photometer on the 2.4-m Thai National Telescope. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 444, 4009–4021 (2014)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. 38

    Hambsch, F.-J. ROAD (Remote Observatory Atacama Desert): intensive observations of variable stars. J. Am. Assoc. Var. Star Obs. 40, 1003–1009 (2012)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  39. 39

    Rebassa-Mansergas, A., Gänsicke, B. T., Rodríguez-Gil, P., Schreiber, M. R. & Koester, D. Post-common-envelope binaries from SDSS — I. 101 white dwarf main-sequence binaries with multiple Sloan Digital Sky Survey spectroscopy. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 382, 1377–1393 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  40. 40

    Hessman, F. V., Robinson, E. L., Nather, R. E. & Zhang, E.-H. Time-resolved spectroscopy of SS Cygni at minimum and maximum light. Astrophys. J. 286, 747–759 (1984)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. 41

    Wade, R. A. & Horne, K. The radial velocity curve and peculiar TiO distribution of the red secondary star in Z Chamaeleontis. Astrophys. J. 324, 411–430 (1988)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. 42

    Marsh, T. R. A spectroscopic study of the deeply eclipsing dwarf nova IP Peg. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 231, 1117–1138 (1988)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. 43

    Faulkner, J., Flannery, B. P. & Warner, B. Ultrashort-period binaries. II. HZ 29 (=AM CVn): a double-white semidetached postcataclysmic nova? Astrophys. J. 175, L79–L83 (1972)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  44. 44

    Knigge, C., Baraffe, I. & Patterson, J. The evolution of cataclysmic variables as revealed by their donor stars. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 194, 28–75 (2011)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  45. 45

    Kellermann, K. I. & Pauliny-Toth, I. I. K. The spectra of opaque radio sources. Astrophys. J. 155, L71–L78 (1969)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references


T.R.M., E.R.S., D.S., E.B., P.J.W., V.S.D., S.P.L. and ULTRACAM were supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC, grant numbers ST/L000733 and ST/M001350/1). B.T.G., A.P. and P.G.J. acknowledge support from the European Research Council (ERC, grant numbers 320964 and 647208). O.T., S.G.P. and M.R.S. acknowledge support from Fondecyt (grant numbers 3140585 and 1141269). M.R.S. also received support from Millenium Nucleus RC130007 (Chilean Ministry of Economy). A.A. acknowledges support from the Thailand Research Fund (grant number MRG5680152) and the National Research Council of Thailand (grant number R2559B034). The analysis in this paper is based on observations collected with telescopes of the Isaac Newton Group in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (observing programmes 095.D-0489, 095.D-0739, 095.D-0802), the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (observing programmes 14470) and the Thai National Telescope. Archival data from the Herschel, Spitzer and WISE space observatories, and from the Catalina Sky Survey were used. We thank the Swift mission PI for a target-of-opportunity program on AR Sco with the XRT and UVOT instruments and Jamie Stevens for carrying out the ATCA Director’s Discretionary Time observations. This paper is dedicated to the memory of Sirinipa Arjyotha.

Author information




T.R.M. organised observations, analysed the data, interpreted the results and was the primary author of the manuscript. B.T.G., A.F.P., E.B., S.G.P., P.G.J., J.v.R., T.K., M.R.S. and O.T. acquired, reduced and analysed optical and ultraviolet spectroscopy. E.R.S. acquired, reduced and analysed the ATCA radio data. S.H., F.-J.H., K.B., C.L. and P.F. first identified the unusual nature of AR Sco and started the optical monitoring campaign. V.S.D., L.K.H., S.P.L., A.A., S.A., J.J.B. and C.A.H. acquired and reduced the high-speed optical photometry. D.T.S. and P.J.W. acquired and analysed Swift and archival X-ray data. D.K. calculated the white dwarf model atmosphere. All authors commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. R. Marsh.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Reviewer Information Nature thanks S. Ransom and M. H. van Kerkwijk for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 The optical spectrum of the white dwarf’s M star companion.

A 10 min exposure of AR Sco taken with FORS on the VLT between orbital phases 0.848 and 0.895 (black). Other spectra: an optimally scaled M5 template (green); the sum of the template plus a fitted smooth spectrum (red); AR Sco minus the template, that is, the extra light (magenta); a white dwarf model atmosphere of T = 9,750 K, log[g] = 8.0, the maximum possible consistent with the HST data (blue). A slit-loss factor of 0.61 has been applied to the models. The strong emission lines come from the irradiated face of the M star.

Extended Data Figure 2 HST ultraviolet spectrum of AR Sco.

This shows the mean HST spectrum with geocoronal emission plotted in grey. The blue line close to the x axis is a white dwarf model atmosphere of T = 9,750 K, log[g] = 8.0, representing the maximal contribution of the white dwarf consistent with light curves. The radial velocities of the emission lines (Extended Data Fig. 4) show that, similar to the optical lines, the ultraviolet lines mainly come from the irradiated face of the M star.

Extended Data Figure 3 Velocity variations of atomic emission lines compared with those of the M star.

ad, Emission lines from a sequence of spectra from the VLT+X-SHOOTER data (a, b, d) and the Na I 8,200 absorption doublet from the M star (d). The dashed line shows the motion of the centre of mass of the M star deduced from the NaI measurements, while the dotted lines show the maximum range of radial velocities from the M star for q = M2/M1 = 0.35. The emission lines move in phase with the Na I doublet but at lower amplitude, showing that they come from the inner face of the M star.

Extended Data Figure 4 The origin of the emission lines relative to the M star.

Velocities of the lines were fitted with VR = −VX cos(2πφ) + VYsin(2πφ). The points show the values of (VX, VY). The M star from Na I is shown by the red dot (by definition this lies at VX = 0). Si IV and He II lines from the HST FUV data are shown by the blue dots. Hα, Hβ and Hγ from optical spectroscopy are shown by the green dots. The black and green plus signs mark the centres of mass of the binary and white dwarf, respectively. Error bars are ±1σ, calculated from fits to the radial velocities with uncertainties on the velocities scaled to result in χ2 = 1 per degree of freedom, and the uncertainties on the fit parameters calculated from the covariance matrix of the linear least-squares fit. The red line shows the Roche lobe of the M star for a mass ratio q = 0.35.

Extended Data Figure 5 Amplitude spectra from nine days of monitoring with a small telescope.

a, Amplitude as a function of frequency around the 1.97 min signal from data taken with a 40 cm telescope. b, The same at the second harmonic. c, d, The same as a and b after subtracting the beat frequency signals at νB (c) and 2νB (d). Signals at νS + νO and 2νSνO are also apparent. e, The window function, computed from a pure sinusoid of frequency νB and amplitude 0.18 magnitudes (see a).

Extended Data Figure 6 Amplitude spectra from seven years of sparsely sampled CSS data.

ac, The amplitude as a function of frequency relative to the mean orbital (a), beat (b) and spin (c) frequencies listed in Extended Data Table 2. The grey line is the spectrum without any processing; the blue line is the spectrum after subtraction of the orbital signal.

Extended Data Table 1 Observation log
Extended Data Table 2 Statistics of the orbital, beat and spin frequencies from bootstrap fits
Extended Data Table 3 Archival data sources and flux values

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Marsh, T., Gänsicke, B., Hümmerich, S. et al. A radio-pulsing white dwarf binary star. Nature 537, 374–377 (2016).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing