Harvard Astronomy 201b

Posts Tagged ‘photons and radiation’

CHAPTER: Ion-Neutral Reactions

In Book Chapter on March 7, 2013 at 3:20 pm

(updated for 2013)

In Ion-Neutral reactions, the neutral atom is polarized by the electric field of the ion, so that interaction potential is

U(r) \approx \vec{E} \cdot \vec{p} = \frac{Z e} {r^2} ( \alpha \frac{Z e}{r^2} ) = \alpha \frac{Z^2 e^2}{r^4},

where \vec{E} is the electric field due to the charged particle, \vec{p} is the induced dipole moment in the neutral particle (determined by quantum mechanics), and \alpha is the polarizability, which defines \vec{p}=\alpha \vec{E} for a neutral atom in a uniform static electric field. See Draine, section 2.4 for more details.

This interaction can take strong or weak forms. We distinguish between the two cases by considering b, the impact parameter. Recall that the reduced mass of a 2-body system is \mu' = m_1 m_2 / (m_1 + m_2) In the weak regime, the interaction energy is much smaller than the kinetic energy of the reduced mass:

\frac{\alpha Z^2 e^2}{b^4} \ll\frac{\mu' v^2}{2} .

In the strong regime, the opposite holds:

\frac{\alpha Z^2 e^2}{b^4} \gg\frac{\mu' v^2}{2}.

The spatial scale which separates these two regimes corresponds to b_{\rm crit}, the critical impact parameter. Setting the two sides equal, we see that b_{\rm crit} = \big(\frac{2 \alpha Z^2 e^2}{\mu' v^2}\big)^{1/4}

The effective cross section for ion-neutral interactions is

\sigma_{ni} \approx \pi b_{\rm crit}^2 = \pi Z e (\frac{2 \alpha}{\mu'})^{1/2} (\frac{1}{v})

Deriving an interaction rate is tricker than for neutral-neutral collisions because n_i \ne n_n in general. So, let’s leave out an explicit n and calculate a rate coefficient instead, in {\rm cm}^3 {\rm s}^{-1}.

k = <\sigma_{ni} v> (although really \sigma_{ni} \propto 1/v, so k is largely independent of v). Combining with the equation above, we get the ion-neutral scattering rate coefficient

k = \pi Z e (\frac{2 \alpha}{\mu'})^{1/2}

As an example, for C^+ - H interactions we get k \approx 2 \times 10^{-9} {\rm cm^{3} s^{-1}}. This is about the rate for most ion-neutral exothermic reactions. This gives us

\frac{{\rm rate}}{{\rm volume}} = n_i n_n k.

So, if n_i = n_n = 1, the average time \tau between collisions is 16 years. Recall that, for neutral-neutral collisions in the diffuse ISM, we had \tau \sim 500 years. Ion-neutral collisions are much more frequent in most parts of the ISM due to the larger interaction cross section.


CHAPTER: Neutral-Neutral Interactions

In Book Chapter on March 7, 2013 at 3:19 pm

(updated for 2013)

Short range forces involving “neutral” particles (neutral-ion, neutral-neutral) are inherently quantum-mechanical. Neutral-neutral interactions are very weak until electron clouds overlap (\sim 1 \AA\sim 10^{-8}cm). We can therefore treat these particles as hard spheres. The collisional cross section for two species is a circle of radius r1 + r2, since that is the closest two particles can get without touching.

\sigma_{nn} \sim \pi (r_1 + r_2)^2 \sim 10^{-15}~{\rm cm}^2

What does that collision rate imply? Consider the mean free path:

mfp = \ell_c \approx (n_n \sigma_{nn})^{-1} = \frac{10^{15}} {n_H}~{\rm cm}

This is about 100 AU in typical ISM conditions (n_H = 1 {\rm cm^{-3}})

In gas at temperature T, the mean particle velocity is given by the 3-d kinetic energy: 3/2 m_n v^2 = kT, or

v = \sqrt{\frac{2}{3} \frac{kT}{m_n}}, where m_n is the mass of the neutral particle. The mean free path and velocity allows us to define a collision timescale:

\tau_{nn} \sim \frac{l_c}{v} \sim (\frac{2}{3} \frac{kT}{m_n})^{-1/2} (n_n \sigma_{nn})^{-1} = 4.5 \times 10^3~n_n^{-1}~T^{-1/2}~{\rm years}.

      • For (n,T) = (1~{\rm cm^{-3}, 80~K}), the collision time is 500 years
      • For (n,T) = (10^4~{\rm cm^{-3}, 10~K}), the collision time is 1.7 months
      • For (n,T) = (1~{\rm cm^{-3}, 10^4~K}), the collision time is 45 years

So we see that density matters much more than temperature in determining the frequency of neutral-neutral collisions.

CHAPTER: Excitation Processes: Collisions

In Book Chapter on March 7, 2013 at 3:18 pm

(updated for 2013)

Collisional coupling means that the gas can be treated in the fluid approximation, i.e. we can treat the system on a macrophysical level.

Collisions are of key importance in the ISM:

      • cause most of the excitation
      • can cause recombinations (electron + ion)
      • lead to chemical reactions

Three types of collisions

      1. Coulomb force-dominated (r^{-1} potential): electron-ion, electron-electron, ion-ion
      2. Ion-neutral: induced dipole in neutral atom leads to r^{-4} potential; e.g. electron-neutral scattering
      3. neutral-neutral: van der Waals forces -> r^{-6} potential; very low cross-section

We will discuss (3) and (2) below; for ion-electron and ion-ion collisions, see Draine Ch. 2.

In general, we will parametrize the interaction rate between two bodies A and B as follows:

{\frac{\rm{reaction~rate}}{\rm{volume}}} = <\sigma v>_{AB} n_a n_B

In this equation, <\sigma v>_{AB} is the collision rate coefficient in \rm{cm}^3 \rm{s}^{-1}. <\sigma v>_{AB}= \int_0^\infty \sigma_{AB}(v) f_v~dv, where \sigma_{AB} (v) is the velocity-dependent cross section and f_v~dv is the particle velocity distribution, i.e. the probability that the relative speed between A and B is v. For the Maxwellian velocity distribution,

f_v~dv = 4 \pi \left(\frac{\mu'}{2\pi k T}\right)^{3/2} e^{-\mu' v^2/2kT} v^2~dv,

where \mu'=m_A m_B/(m_A+m_B) is the reduced mass. The center of mass energy is E=1/2 \mu' v^2, and the distribution can just as well be written in terms of the energy distribution of particles, f_E dE. Since f_E dE = f_v dv, we can rewrite the collision rate coefficient in terms of energy as

\sigma_{AB}=\left(\frac{8kT}{\pi\mu'}\right)^{1/2} \int_0^\infty \sigma_{AB}(E) \left(\frac{E}{kT}\right) e^{-E/kT} \frac{dE}{kT}.

These collision coefficients can occasionally be calculated analytically (via classical or quantum mechanics), and can in other situations be measured in the lab. The collision coefficients often depend on temperature. For practical purposes, many databases tabulate collision rates for different molecules and temperatures (e.g., the LAMBDA databsase).

For more details, see Draine, Chapter 2. In particular, he discusses 3-body collisions relevant at high densities.

CHAPTER: Definitions of Temperature

In Book Chapter on March 7, 2013 at 3:27 am

(updated for 2013)

The term “temperature” describes several different quantities in the ISM, and in observational astronomy. Only under idealized conditions (i.e. thermodynamic equilibrium, the Rayleigh Jeans regime, etc.) are (some of) these temperatures equivalent. For example, in stellar interiors, where the plasma is very well-coupled, a single “temperature” defines each of the following: the velocity distribution, the ionization distribution, the spectrum, and the level populations. In the ISM each of these can be characterized by a different “temperature!”

Brightness Temperature

T_B = the temperature of a blackbody that reproduces a given flux density at a specific frequency, such that

B_\nu(T_B) = \frac{2 h \nu^3}{c^2} \frac{1}{{\rm exp}(h \nu / kT_B) - 1}

Note: units for B_{\nu} are {\rm erg~cm^{-2}~s^{-1}~Hz^{-1}~ster^{-1}}.

This is a fundamental concept in radio astronomy. Note that the above definition assumes that the index of refraction in the medium is exactly 1.

Effective Temperature

T_{\rm eff} (also called T_{\rm rad}, the radiation temperature) is defined by

\int_\nu B_\nu d\nu = \sigma T_{{\rm eff}}^4 ,

which is the integrated intensity of a blackbody of temperature T_{\rm eff}. \sigma = (2 \pi^5 k^4)/(15 c^2 h^3)=5.669 \times 10^{-5} {\rm erg~cm^{-2}~s^{-1}~K^{-4}} is the Stefan-Boltzmann constant.

Color Temperature

T_c is defined by the slope (in log-log space) of an SED. Thus T_c is the temperature of a blackbody that has the same ratio of fluxes at two wavelengths as a given measurement. Note that T_c = T_b = T_{\rm eff} for a perfect blackbody.

Kinetic Temperature

T_k is the temperature that a particle of gas would have if its Maxwell-Boltzmann velocity distribution reproduced the width of a given line profile. It characterizes the random velocity of particles. For a purely thermal gas, the line profile is given by

I(\nu) = I_0~e^{\frac{-(\nu-\nu_{jk})^2}{2\sigma^2}},

where \sigma_{\nu}=\frac{\nu_{jk}}{c}\sqrt{\frac{kT_k}{\mu}} in frequency units, or

\sigma_v=\sqrt{\frac{kT_k}{\mu}} in velocity units.

In the “hot” ISM T_k is characteristic, but when \Delta v_{\rm non-thermal} > \Delta v_{\rm thermal} (where \Delta v are the Doppler full widths at half-maxima [FWHM]) then T_k does not represent the random velocity distribution. Examples include regions dominated by turbulence.

T_k can be different for neutrals, ions, and electrons because each can have a different Maxwellian distribution. For electrons, T_k = T_e, the electron temperature.

Ionization Temperature

T_I is the temperature which, when plugged into the Saha equation, gives the observed ratio of ionization states.

Excitation Temperature

T_{\rm ex} is the temperature which, when plugged into the Boltzmann distribution, gives the observed ratio of two energy states. Thus it is defined by

\frac{n_k}{n_j}=\frac{g_k}{g_j}~e^{-h\nu_{jk}/kT_{\rm ex}}.

Note that in stellar interiors, T_k = T_I = T_{\rm ex} = T_c. In this room, T_k = T_I = T_{\rm ex} \sim 300K, but T_c \sim 6000K.

Spin Temperature

T_s is a special case of T_{\rm ex} for spin-flip transitions. We’ll return to this when we discuss the important 21-cm line of neutral hydrogen.

Bolometric temperature

T_{\rm bol} is the temperature of a blackbody having the same mean frequency as the observed continuum spectrum. For a blackbody, T_{\rm bol} = T_{\rm eff}. This is a useful quantity for young stellar objects (YSOs), which are often heavily obscured in the optical and have infrared excesses due to the presence of a circumstellar disk.

Antenna temperature

T_A is a directly measured quantity (commonly used in radio astronomy) that incorporates radiative transfer and possible losses between the source emitting the radiation and the detector. In the simplest case,

T_A = \eta T_B( 1 - e^{-\tau}),

where \eta is the telescope efficiency (a numerical factor from 0 to 1) and \tau is the optical depth.

CHAPTER: Thermodynamic Equilibrium

In Book Chapter on February 28, 2013 at 3:13 am

(updated for 2013)

Collisions and radiation generally compete to establish the relative populations of different energy states. Randomized collisional processes push the distribution of energy states to the Boltzmann distribution, n_j \propto e^{-E_j / kT}. When collisions dominate over competing processes and establish the Boltzmann distribution, we say the ISM is in Thermodynamic Equilibrium.

Often this only holds locally, hence the term Local Thermodynamic Equilibrium or LTE. For example, the fact that we can observe stars implies that energy (via photons) is escaping the system. While this cannot be considered a state of global thermodynamic equilibrium, localized regions in stellar interiors are in near-equilibrium with their surroundings.

But the ISM is not like stars. In stars, most emission, absorption, scattering, and collision processes occur on timescales very short compared with dynamical or evolutionary timescales. Due to the low density of the ISM, interactions are much more rare. This makes it difficult to establish equilibrium. Furthermore, many additional processes disrupt equilibrium (such as energy input from hot stars, cosmic rays, X-ray background, shocks).

As a consequence, in the ISM the level populations in atoms and molecules are not always in their equilibrium distribution. Because of the low density, most photons are created from (rare) collisional processes (except in locations like HII regions where ionization and recombination become dominant).

CHAPTER: Introductory Remarks on Radiative Processes

In Book Chapter on February 28, 2013 at 3:10 am

(updated for 2013)

The goal of the next several sections is to build an understanding of how photons are produced by, are absorbed by, and interact with the ISM. We consider a system in which one or more constituents are excited under certain physical conditions to produce photons, then the photons pass through other constituents under other conditions, before finally being observed (and thus affected by the limitations and biases of the observational conditions and instruments) on Earth. Local thermodynamic equilibrium is often used to describe the conditions, but this does not always hold. Remember that our overall goal is to turn observations of the ISM into physics, and vice-versa.

The following contribute to an observed Spectral Energy Distribution:

      • gas: spontaneous emission, stimulated emission (e.g. masers), absorption, scattering processes involving photons + electrons or bound atoms/molecules
      • dust: absorption; scattering (the sum of these two -> extinction); emission (blackbody modified by wavelength-dependent emissivity)
      • other: synchrotron, brehmsstrahlung, etc.

The processes taking place in our “system” depend sensitively on the specific conditions of the ISM in question, but the following “rules of thumb” are worth remembering:

      1. Very rarely is a system actually in a true equilibrium state.
      2. Except in HII regions, transitions in the ISM are usually not electronic.
      3. The terms Upper Level and Lower Level refer to any two quantum mechanical states of an atom or molecule where E_{\rm upper}>E_{\rm lower}. We will use k to index the upper state, and j for the lower state.
      4. Transitions can be induced by photons, cosmic rays, collisions with atoms and molecules, and interactions with free electrons.
      5. Levels can refer to electronic, rotational, vibrational, spin, and magnetic states.
      6. To understand radiative processes in the ISM, we will generally need to know the chemical composition, ambient radiation field, and velocity distribution of each ISM component. We will almost always have to make simplifying assumptions about these conditions.

CHAPTER: Energy Density Comparison

In Book Chapter on February 26, 2013 at 3:04 am

(updated for 2013)

See Draine table 1.5. The primary sources of energy present in the ISM are:

      1. The CMB (T_{\rm CMB}=2.725~{\rm K}
      2. Thermal IR from dust
      3. Starlight (h\nu < 13.6 {\rm eV}
      4. Thermal kinetic energy (3/2 nkT)
      5. Turbulent kinetic energy (1/2 \rho \sigma_v^2)
      6. Magnetic fields (B^2 / 8 \pi )
      7. Cosmic rays

All of these terms have energy densities within an order of magnitude of 1 ~{\rm eV ~ cm}^{-3}. With the exception of the CMB, this is not a coincidence: because of the dynamic nature of the ISM, these processes are coupled together and thus exchange energy with one another.

CHAPTER: Measuring States in the ISM

In Book Chapter on February 26, 2013 at 3:00 am

(updated for 2013)

There are two primary observational diagnostics of the thermal, chemical, and ionization states in the ISM:

  1. Spectral Energy Distribution (SED; broadband low-resolution)
  2. Spectrum (narrowband, high-resolution)


Very generally, if a source’s SED is blackbody-like, one can fit a Planck function to the SED and derive the temperature and column density (if one can assume LTE). If an SED is not blackbody-like, the emission is the sum of various processes, including:

  • thermal emission (e.g. dust, CMB)
  • synchrotron emission (power law spectrum)
  • free-free emission (thermal for a thermal electron distribution)


Quantum mechanics combined with chemistry can predict line strengths. Ratios of lines can be used to model “excitation”, i.e. what physical conditions (density, temperature, radiation field, ionization fraction, etc.) lead to the observed distribution of line strengths. Excitation is controlled by

  • collisions between particles (LTE often assumed, but not always true)
  • photons from the interstellar radiation field, nearby stars, shocks, CMB, chemistry, cosmic rays
  • recombination/ionization/dissociation

Which of these processes matter where? In class (2011), we drew the following schematic.

A schematic of several structures in the ISM


A: Dense molecular cloud with stars forming within

  • T=10-50~{\rm K};~n>10^3~{\rm cm}^{-3} (measured, e.g., from line ratios)
  • gas is mostly molecular (low T, high n, self-shielding from UV photons, few shocks)
  • not much photoionization due to high extinction (but could be complicated ionization structure due to patchy extinction)
  • cosmic rays can penetrate, leading to fractional ionization: X_I=n_i/(n_H+n_i) \approx n_i/n_H \propto n_H^{-1/2}, where n_i is the ion density (see Draine 16.5 for details). Measured values for X_e (the electron-to-neutral ratio, which is presumed equal to the ionization fraction) are about X_e \sim 10^{-6}~{\rm to}~10^{-7}.
  • possible shocks due to impinging HII region – could raise T, n, ionization, and change chemistry globally
  • shocks due to embedded young stars w/ outflows and winds -> local changes in Tn, ionization, chemistry
  • time evolution? feedback from stars formed within?

B: Cluster of OB stars (an HII region ionized by their integrated radiation)

  • 7000 < T < 10,000 K (from line ratios)
  • gas primarily ionized due to photons beyond Lyman limit (E > 13.6 eV) produced by O stars
  • elements other than H have different ionization energy, so will ionize more or less easily
  • HII regions are often clumpy; this is observed as a deficit in the average value of n_e from continuum radiation over the entire region as compared to the value of ne derived from line ratios. In other words, certain regions are denser (in ionized gas) than others.
  • The above introduces the idea of a filling factor, defined as the ratio of filled volume to total volume (in this case the filled volume is that of ionized gas)
  • dust is present in HII regions (as evidenced by observations of scattered light), though the smaller grains may be destroyed
  • significant radio emission: free-free (bremsstrahlung), synchrotron, and recombination line (e.g. H76a)
  • chemistry is highly dependent on nT, flux, and time

C: Supernova remnant

  • gas can be ionized in shocks by collisions (high velocities required to produce high energy collisions, high T)
  • e.g. if v > 1000 km/s, T > 106 K
  • atom-electron collisions will ionize H, He; produce x-rays; produce highly ionized heavy elements
  • gas can also be excited (e.g. vibrational H2 emission) and dissociated by shocks

D: General diffuse ISM

  • UV radiation from the interstellar radiation field produces ionization
  • ne best measured from pulsar dispersion measure (DM), an observable. {\rm DM} \propto \int n_e dl
  • role of magnetic fields depends critically on XI(B-fields do not directly affect neutrals, though their effects can be felt through ion-neutral collisions)

CHAPTER: Energy Density Comparison

In Book Chapter on February 6, 2013 at 10:06 pm

See Draine table 1.5 The main kinds of energy present in the ISM are:

  1. The CMB
  2. Thermal IR from dust
  3. Starlight
  4. Thermal kinetic energy (3/2 nKT)
  5. Turbulent kinetic energy (1/2 \rho \sigma_v^2)
  6. B fields (B^2 / 8 \pi)
  7. Cosmic rays

All of these terms have energy densities within an order of magnitude of 1 ~{\rm eV ~ cm}^{-3}. With the exception of the CMB, this is not a coincidence. Because of the dynamic nature of the ISM, these processes are coupled together and thus exchange energy with one another.

CHAPTER: Bruce Draine’s List of Constituents of the ISM

In Book Chapter on February 5, 2013 at 9:09 pm

(updated for 2013)

  1. Gas
  2. Dust
  3. Cosmic Rays*
  4. Photons**
  5. B-Field
  6. Gravitational Field
  7. Dark Matter

*cosmic rays are highly relativistic, super-energetic ions and electrons

**photons include:

  • The Cosmic Microwave Background (2.7 K)
  • starlight from stellar photospheres (UV, optical, NIR,…)
  • h\nu from transitions in atoms, ions, and molecules
  • “thermal emission” from dust (heated by starlight, AGN)
  • free-free emission (bremsstrahlung) in plasma
  • synchrotron radiation from relativistic electrons
  • \gamma-rays from nuclear transitions

His list of “phases” from Table 1.3:

  1. Coronal gas (Hot Ionized Medium, or “HIM”): T> 10^{5.5}~{\rm K}. Shock-heated from supernovae. Fills half the volume of the galaxy, and cools in about 1 Myr.
  2. HII gas: Ionized mostly by O and early B stars. Called an “HII region” when confined by a molecular cloud, otherwise called “diffuse HII”.
  3. Warm HI (Warm Neutral Medium, or “WNM”): atomic, T \sim 10^{3.7}~{\rm K}. n\sim 0.6 ~{\rm cm}^{-3}. Heated by starlight, photoelectric effect, and cosmic rays. Fills ~40% of the volume.
  4. Cool HI (Cold Neutral Medium, or “CNM”). T \sim 100~{\rm K}, n \sim 30 ~{\rm cm}^{-3}. Fills ~1% of the volume.
  5. Diffuse molecular gas. Where HI self-shields from UV radiation to allow H_2 formation on the surfaces of dust grains in cloud interiors. This occurs at 10~{\rm to}~50~{\rm cm}^{-3}.
  6. Dense Molecular gas. “Bound” according to Draine (though maybe not). n >\sim 10^3 ~{\rm cm}^{-3}. Sites of star formation.  See also Bok Globules (JC 2013).
  7. Stellar Outflows. T=50-1000 {\rm K}, n \sim 1-10^6 ~{\rm cm}^{-3}. Winds from cool stars.

These phases are fluid and dynamic, and change on a variety of time and spatial scales. Examples include growth of an HII region, evaporation of molecular clouds, the interface between the ISM and IGM, cooling of supernova remnants, mixing, recombination, etc.