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Magnetic field strength of a neutron-star-powered ultraluminous X-ray source

Nature Astronomyvolume 2pages312316 (2018) | Download Citation


Ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs) are bright X-ray sources in nearby galaxies not associated with the central supermassive black hole. Their luminosities imply they are powered by either an extreme accretion rate onto a compact stellar remnant, or an intermediate mass (~100–105 M) black hole1. Recently detected coherent pulsations coming from three bright ULXs2,3,4,5 demonstrate that some of these sources are powered by accretion onto a neutron star, implying accretion rates significantly in excess of the Eddington limit, a high degree of geometric beaming, or both. The physical challenges associated with the high implied accretion rates can be mitigated if the neutron star surface field is very high (1014 G)6, since this suppresses the electron scattering cross-section, reducing the radiation pressure that chokes off accretion for high luminosities. Surface magnetic field strengths can be determined through cyclotron resonance scattering features7,8 produced by the transition of charged particles between quantized Landau levels. Here, we present the detection at a significance of 3.8σ of an absorption line at 4.5 keV in the Chandra spectrum of a ULX in M51. This feature is likely to be a cyclotron resonance scattering feature produced by the strong magnetic field of a neutron star. Assuming scattering off electrons, the magnetic field strength is implied to be ~1011 G, while protons would imply a magnetic field of B ~ 1015 G.

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M.J.M. and D.J.W. appreciate support from Ernest Rutherford Science and Technology Facilities Council fellowships. The work of D.S. was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Author information


  1. Cahill Center for Astrophysics, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA

    • M. Brightman
    • , F. A. Harrison
    •  & M. Heida
  2. Science Operations Department, European Space Astronomy Centre, Madrid, Spain

    • F. Fürst
  3. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK

    • M. J. Middleton
  4. Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • D. J. Walton
    •  & A. C. Fabian
  5. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA

    • D. Stern
  6. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Centre d’Etude Spatiale des Rayonnements, Toulouse, France

    • D. Barret
  7. Université Toulouse III—Paul Sabatier-Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées, Centre d’Etude Spatiale des Rayonnements, Toulouse, France

    • D. Barret
  8. Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica, Osservatorio Astronomico di Cagliari, Selargius, Italy

    • M. Bachetti


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M. Brightman reduced and analysed the Chandra and XMM-Newton data. F.F. performed timing analysis of the Chandra and XMM-Newton data. M.H. analysed the ULX multiwavelength counterpart. M. Brightman, F.A.H., F.F., M.J.M., D.J.W., A.C.F., D.B. and M. Bachetti interpreted the results. M. Brightman, F.A.H., D.J.W. and D.S. prepared the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to M. Brightman.

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