Harvard Astronomy 201b

CHAPTER: Stromgren Sphere: An example “chalkboard derivation”

In Book Chapter on February 12, 2013 at 8:31 pm

(updated for 2013)


The Stromgren sphere is a simplified analysis of the size of HII regions. Massive O and B stars emit many high-energy photons, which will ionize their surroundings and create HII regions. We assume that such a star is embedded in a uniform medium of neutral hydrogen. A sphere of radius r around this star will become ionized; is called the “Stromgren radius”. The volume of the ionized region will be such that the rate at which ionized hydrogen recombines equals the rate at which the star emits ionizing photons (i.e. all of the ionizing photons are “used up” re-ionizing hydrogen as it recombines)

The recombination rate density is \alpha n^2, where \alpha is the recombination coefficient (in \mathrm{cm}^3~\mathrm{s}^{-1}) and n=n_e=n_\mathrm{H} is the number density (assuming fully ionized gas and only hydrogen, the electron and proton densities are equal). The total rate of ionizing photons (in photons per second) in the volume of the sphere is N^*. Setting the rates of ionization and recombination equal to one another, we get

\frac43 \pi r^3 \alpha n^2 = N^*, and solving for r,

r = ( \frac {3N^*} {4\pi\alpha n^2})^{\frac13}

Typical values for the above variables are N^* \sim 10^{49}~\mathrm{photons~s}^{-1}, \alpha \sim 3\times 10^{-13}\; \mathrm{cm}^3 \; \mathrm s^{-1} and n \sim 10\; \mathrm {cm}^{-3}, implying Stromgren radii of 10 to 100 pc. See the journal club (2013) article for discussion of Stromgren’s seminal 1939 paper.

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