Indirect evidence of an active radio pulsar in the quiescent state of the transient millisecond pulsar SAX J1808.4-3658

Sergio Campana, Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera
Paolo D'Avanzo, Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera
Jorge Casares, Instituto Astrofisico de Canarias
Stefano Covino, Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera
Gianluca Israel, Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma
Gianni Marconi, Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma
Rob Hynes, The University of Texas at Austin
Phil Charles, University of Southampton
Luigi Stella, Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma


Millisecond radio pulsars are neutron stars that have been spun up by the transfer of angular momentum during the low-mass X-ray binary phase. The transition from an accretion-powered pulsar to a rotation-powered pulsar takes place on evolutionary timescales at the end of the accretion process; however, it may also occur sporadically in systems undergoing transient X-ray activity. We have obtained the first optical spectrum of the low-mass transient X-ray pulsar SAX J1808.4-3658 in quiescence. Similar to the black widow millisecond pulsar B1957+20, this X-ray pulsar shows a large optical modulation at the orbital period due to an irradiated companion star. Using the brightness of the companion star as a bolometer, we conclude that a very high irradiating luminosity, a factor of ∼100 larger than directly observed, must be present in the system. This most likely derives from a rotation-powered neutron star that resumes activity during quiescence.