Superhumps in low mass X-ray binaries

Haswell, C.A; King, A.R; Murray, J.R and Charles, P.A (2001). Superhumps in low mass X-ray binaries. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 321(3) pp. 475–480.



We propose a mechanism for the superhump modulations observed in optical photometry of at least two black-hole X-ray transients (SXTs). As in extreme mass-ratio cataclysmic variables (CVs), superhumps are assumed to result from the presence of the 3:1 orbital resonance in the accretion disc. This causes the disc to become non-axisymmetric and precess. However, the mechanism for superhump luminosity variations in low-mass X-ray binaries (LMXBs) must differ from that in CVs, where it is attributed to a tidally-driven modulation of the disc's viscous dissipation, varying on the beat between the orbital and disc precession period. By contrast in LMXBs, tidal dissipation in the outer accretion disc is negligible: the optical emission is overwhelmingly dominated by reprocessing of intercepted central X-rays. Thus a different origin for the superhump modulation is required. Recent observations and numerical simulations indicate that in an extreme mass-ratio system the disc area changes on the superhump period. We deduce that the superhumps observed in SXTs arise from a modulation of the reprocessed flux by the changing area. Therefore, unlike the situation in CVs, where the superhump amplitude is inclination-independent, superhumps should be best seen in low-inclination LMXBs, whereas an orbital modulation from the heated face of the secondary star should be more prominent at high inclinations. Modulation at the disc precession period (10 s of days) may indicate disc asymmetries such as warping. We comment on the orbital period determinations of LMXBs, and the possibility and significance of possible permanent superhump LMXBs.

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