The gas that supplies the X-ray pulsar can reach the neutron star by a variety of ways that depend on the size and shape of the neutron star's orbital path and the nature of the companion star. Some companion stars of X-ray pulsars are very massive young stars, usually OB supergiants (see stellar classification), that emit a radiation driven stellar wind from their surface. The neutron star is immersed in the wind and continuously captures gas that flows nearby. Vela X-1 is an example of this kind of system. In other systems, the neutron star orbits so closely to its companion that its strong gravitational force can pull material from the companion's atmosphere into an orbit around itself, a mass transfer process known as Roche lobe overflow. The captured material forms a gaseous accretion disc and spirals inwards to ultimately fall onto the neutron star as in the binary system Cen X-3. For still other types of X-ray pulsars, the companion star is a Be star that rotates very rapidly and apparently sheds a disk of gas around its equator. The orbits of the neutron star with these companions are usually large and very elliptical in shape. When the neutron star passes nearby or through the Be circumstellar disk, it will capture material and temporarily become an X-ray pulsar. The circumstellar disk around the Be star expands and contracts for unknown reasons, so these are transient X-ray pulsars that are observed only intermittently, often with months to years between episodes of observable X-ray pulsation.
Radio pulsars (rotation-powered pulsars) and X-ray pulsars exhibit very different spin behaviors and have different mechanisms producing their characteristic pulses although it is accepted that both kinds of pulsar are manifestations of a rotating magnetized neutron star. The rotation cycle of the neutron star in both cases is identified with the pulse period. The major differences are that radio pulsars have periods on the order of milliseconds to seconds, and all radio pulsars are losing angular momentum and slowing down. In contrast, the X-ray pulsars exhibit a variety of spin behaviors. Some X-ray pulsars are observed to be continuously spinning faster or slower (with occasional reversals in these trends) while others show either little change in pulse period or display erratic spin-down and spin-up behavior. The explanation of this difference can be found in the physical nature of the two pulsar classes. Over 99% of radio pulsars are single objects that radiate away their rotational energy in the form of relativistic particles and magnetic dipole radiation, lighting up any nearby nebulae that surround them. In contrast, X-ray pulsars are members of binary star systems and accrete matter from either stellar winds or accretion disks. The accreted matter transfers angular momentum to (or from) the neutron star causing the spin rate to increase or decrease at rates that are often hundreds of times faster than the typical spin down rate in radio pulsars. Exactly why the X-ray pulsars show such varied spin behavior is still not clearly understood.
X-ray pulsars are observed using X-ray telescopes that are satellites in low Earth orbit although some observations have been made, mostly in the early years of X-ray astronomy, using detectors carried by balloons or sounding rockets.