An Intermediate Polar (also DQ Herculis Star) is a type of cataclysmic variable binary star system. In most cataclysmic variables, matter from a main-sequence companion star is gravitationally stripped by a white dwarf star in the form of an accretion disk. In intermediate polar systems, the accretion disk is disrupted by the magnetic field of its white dwarf star. Infalling gas from the companion star will form a disk when the matter is still far from the white dwarf, but will follow magnetic field lines in accretion streams when the matter falls closer to the white dwarf. In the transition region between the accretion disk and the accretion stream, infalling gas may also fall as curved sheets called accretion curtains.
The name "intermediate polar" is derived from the strength of the white dwarf's magnetic field, which is between that of non-magnetic cataclysmic variable systems and strongly magnetic systems. Non-magnetic systems exhibit full accretion disks, while strongly magnetic systems (called polars, or AM Herculis systems) exhibit only accretion streams.
There are 26 confirmed intermediate polar systems as of 14 April 2006. This represents about 1% of the 1,830 total cataclysmic variable systems presented by Downes et al. (2006) in the Catalog of Cataclysmic Variables.
Intermediate polar systems are strong x-ray emitters. The x-rays are generated by high velocity particles from the accretion stream forming a shock as they fall onto the surface of the white dwarf star. As particles decelerate and cool before hitting the white dwarf surface, bremsstrahlung x-rays are produced and may subsequently be absorbed by gas surrounding the shock region.
The magnetic field strength of white dwarfs in intermediate polar systems are typically 1 million to 10 million gauss (100–1000 teslas). This is about a million times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field and towards the upper limit of magnetic field strengths that can be produced in a laboratory on Earth, but is much less than the magnetic field strength of neutron stars. At the intersection of the accretion stream and the surface of the white dwarf, a hot spot is produced. Because the white dwarf has a dipole magnetic field, it will have one hot spot at each of its magnetic poles. As the white dwarf and its dipole magnetic field spin, the hot spots will spin also.
Light curve periodicities
The light curve of an intermediate polar may show several types of stable periodic changes in brightness. One periodicity is related to the orbital period of the binary star system. The orbital periods of confirmed intermediate polars range from 1.4 to 48 hours, with typical values between 3 and 6 hours.
A second periodic signal originates from the rotation of the white dwarf spinning on its axis. The observational characteristic that most clearly defines an intermediate polar is the existence of a spin period signal that is shorter than the orbital period. The known periods range from 33 to 4022 seconds. Explanations for the physical cause of the spin period oscillations involve the white dwarf hot spot and/or the converging material above the hot spot.
A third light curve periodicity, the sideband period between the spin period and the orbital period, is also often present.
All three periodic signals may be measured by taking a fourier transform of the light curve and producing a power spectrum. Intermediate polars produce spin and sideband periodicities in x-ray, ultraviolet, and optical wavelengths. Although the source of the periods in all three wavelengths is ultimately the white dwarf spin, the exact mechanisms for producing the high-energy periodicities and the optical periodicities are thought to be different.
In addition to the stable oscillations, unstable oscillations called "quasi-periodic oscillations" may appear and then die off after a few cycles. Quasi-periodic oscillations typically have periods between 30 and 300 seconds.
- Coel Hellier (2001). Cataclysmic Variable Stars: How and Why They Vary. Springer Praxis. ISBN 1-85233-211-5.
- Brian Warner (2003). Cataclysmic Variable Stars. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-54209-8.
- Joseph Patterson, "The DQ Herculis Stars". 1994. PASP, 106, 209.
- "The Intermediate Polars". Retrieved May 16, 2006.