Symbiotic stars in X-rays

G. J.M. Luna, J. L. Sokoloski, K. Mukai, T. Nelson

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42 Scopus citations


Until recently, symbiotic binary systems in which a white dwarf accretes from a red giant were thought to be mainly a soft X-ray population. Here we describe the detection with the X-ray Telescope (XRT) on the Swift satellite of nine white dwarf symbiotics that were not previously known to be X-ray sources and one that had previously been detected as a supersoft X-ray source. The nine new X-ray detections were the result of a survey of 41 symbiotic stars, and they increase the number of symbiotic stars known to be X-ray sources by approximately 30%. The Swift/XRT telescope detected all of the new X-ray sources at energies greater than 2 keV. Their X-ray spectra are consistent with thermal emission and fall naturally into three distinct groups. The first group contains those sources with a single, highly absorbed hard component that we identify as probably coming from an accretion-disk boundary layer. The second group is composed of those sources with a single, soft X-ray spectral component that probably originates in a region where low-velocity shocks produce X-ray emission, i.e., a colliding-wind region. The third group consists of those sources with both hard and soft X-ray spectral components. We also find that unlike in the optical, where rapid, stochastic brightness variations from the accretion disk typically are not seen, detectable UV flickering is a common property of symbiotic stars. Supporting our physical interpretation of the two X-ray spectral components, simultaneous Swift UV photometry shows that symbiotic stars with harder X-ray emission tend to have stronger UV flickering, which is usually associated with accretion through a disk. To place these new observations in the context of previous work on X-ray emission from symbiotic stars, we modified and extended the α/β/γ classification scheme for symbiotic-star X-ray spectra that was introduced by Muerset et al. based upon observations with the ROSAT satellite, to include a new δ classification for sources with hard X-ray emission from the innermost accretion region. Because we have identified the elusive accretion component in the emission from a sample of symbiotic stars, our results have implications for the understanding of wind-fed mass transfer in wide binaries, and the accretion rate in one class of candidate progenitors of type Ia supernovae.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberA6
JournalAstronomy and Astrophysics
StatePublished - 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the anonymous referee for comments and suggestions which improved the final quality of this article. We acknowledge the Swift team for planning these observations. G. J. M. Luna is a member of the CIC-CONICET (Argentina) and acknowledges support from grants PIP-Conicet/2011 #D4598 and FONCyT/PICT/2011 #269. J. L. Sokoloski acknowledges support from grants SAO GO1-12041A, NASA NNX10AK31G, and NASA NNX11AD77G. We thank N. Masetti and P. Evans for useful comments that helped to improve the manuscript.


  • Accretion, accretion disks
  • Binaries: symbiotic
  • X-rays: binaries


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