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Zooming in on the very faint neutron star RX J1856.5-3754

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First signs of weird quantum property of empty space?

By studying the light emitted from an extraordinarily dense and strongly magnetised neutron star using ESO's Very Large Telescope, astronomers may have found the first observational indications of a strange quantum effect, first predicted in the 1930s. The polarisation of the observed light suggests that the empty space around the neutron star is subject to a quantum effect known as vacuum birefringence.
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Title: The birthplace and age of the isolated neutron star RX J1856.5-3754
Authors: R. P. Mignani (MSSL-UCL, Kepler Institute of Astronomy, University of Zielona Gora), D. Vande Putte (MSSL-UCL), M. Cropper (MSSL-UCL), R. Turolla (Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Universita' di Padova, MSSL-UCL), S. Zane (MSSL-UCL), L. J. Pellizza, L. A. Bignone (Instituto de Astronomia y Fisica del Espacio) N. Sartore (INAF - Istituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica Milano), A. Treves (Dipartimento di Fisica e Matematica, Universita' dell'Insubria)

X-ray observations unveiled various types of radio-silent Isolated Neutron Stars (INSs), phenomenologically very diverse, e.g. the Myr old X-ray Dim INS (XDINSs) and the kyr old magnetars. Although their phenomenology is much diverse, the similar periods (P=2--10 s) and magnetic fields (~10^{14} G) suggest that XDINSs are evolved magnetars, possibly born from similar populations of supermassive stars. One way to test this hypothesis is to identify their parental star clusters by extrapolating backward the neutron star velocity vector in the Galactic potential. By using the information on the age and space velocity of the XDINS RX J1856.5-3754, we computed backwards its orbit in the Galactic potential and searched for its parental stellar cluster by means of a closest approach criterion. We found a very likely association with the Upper Scorpius OB association, for a neutron star age of 0.420.08 Myr, a radial velocity V_r^NS =6713 km s^{-1}, and a present-time parallactic distance d_\pi^NS = 123^{+11}_{-15} pc. Our result confirms that the "true" neutron star age is much lower than the spin-down age (tau_{sd}=3.8 Myrs), and is in good agreement with the cooling age, as computed within standard cooling scenarios. The mismatch between the spin-down and the dynamical/cooling age would require either an anomalously large breaking index (n~20) or a decaying magnetic field with initial value B_0 ~ 10^{14} G. Unfortunately, owing to the uncertainty on the age of the Upper Scorpius OB association and the masses of its members we cannot yet draw firm conclusions on the estimated mass of the RX J1856.5-3754 progenitor.

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Title: A study of the long term variability of RX J1856.5-3754 with XMM-Newton
Authors: S. Mereghetti, N. Sartore, A. Tiengo, A. De Luca, R. Turolla, F. Haberl

We report on a detailed spectral analysis of all the available XMM-Newton data of RX J1856.5-3754, the brightest and most extensively observed nearby, thermally emitting neutron star. Very small variations (~1-2%) in the single-blackbody temperature are detected, but are probably due to an instrumental effect, since they correlate with the position of the source on the detector. Restricting the analysis to a homogeneous subset of observations, with the source at the same detector position, we place strong limits on possible spectral or flux variations from March 2005 to present-day. A slightly higher temperature (kT~61.5 eV, compared to the average value kT~61 eV) was instead measured in April 2002. If this difference is not of instrumental origin, it implies a rate of variation of about 0.15 eV/yr between April 2002 and March 2005. The high-statistics spectrum from the selected observations is well fit by the sum of two blackbody models, which extrapolate to an optical flux level in agreement with the observed value.

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Title: Spectral monitoring of RX J1856.5-3754 with XMM-Newton. Analysis of EPIC-pn data
Authors: N. Sartore, A. Tiengo, S. Mereghetti, A. De Luca, R. Turolla, F. Haberl

Using a large set of XMM-Newton observations we searched for long term spectral and flux variability of the isolated neutron star RX J1856.5-3754 in the time interval from April 2002 to October 2011. This is the brightest and most extensively observed source of a small group of nearby, thermally emitting isolated neutron stars, of which at least one member (RX J0720.4-3125, Hohle et al., 2010) has shown long term variability. A detailed analysis of the data obtained with the EPIC-pn camera in the 0.15-1.2 keV energy range reveals small variations in the temperature derived with a single blackbody fit (of the order of 1% around kT^inf ~ 61 eV). Such variations are correlated with the position of the source on the detector and can be ascribed to an instrumental effect, most likely a spatial dependence of the channel to energy relation. For the sampled instrumental coordinates, we quantify this effect as variations of ~ 4% and ~ 15 eV in the gain slope and offset, respectively. Selecting only a homogeneous subset of observations, with the source imaged at the same detector position, we find no evidence for spectral or flux variations of RX J1856.5-3754 from March 2005 to present-day, with limits of Delta kT^inf < 0.5% and Delta f_X < 3% (0.15-1.2 keV), with 3sigma confidence. A slightly higher temperature (kT^inf ~ 61.5 eV, compared to kT^\inf ~ 61 eV) was instead measured in April 2002. If this difference is not of instrumental origin, it implies a rate of variation \sim -0.15 eV yr^-1 between April 2002 and March 2005. The high-statistics spectrum from the selected observations is best fitted with the sum of two blackbody models, with temperatures kT_h^inf = 62.4_{-0.4}^{+0.6} eV and kT_s^\inf = 38.9_{-2.9}^{+4.9} eV, which account for the flux seen in the optical band. No significant spectral features are detected, with upper limits of 6 eV on their equivalent width.

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Title: RX J1856.5-3754 as a possible Strange Star candidate
Authors: Jillian Anne Henderson (1), Dany Page (1) ((1) Instituto de Astronomia, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico)

RX J1856.5-3754 has been proposed as a strange star candidate due to its very small apparent radius measured from its X-ray thermal spectrum. However, its optical emission requires a much larger radius and thus most of the stellar surface must be cold and undetectable in X-rays. In the case the star is a neutron star such a surface temperature distribution can be explained by the presence of a strong toroidal field in the crust (Perez-Azorin et al. 2006, Geppert et al. 2006). We consider a similar scenario for a strange star with a thin baryonic crust to determine if such a magnetic field induced effect is still possible.

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