The magnetohydrodynamics of supersonic gas clouds: MHD cosmic bullets and wind-swept clumps

T. W. Jones, Dongsu Ryu, I. L. Tregillis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


We report an extensive set of two-dimensional MHD simulations exploring the role and evolution of magnetic fields in the dynamics of supersonic plasma clumps. We examine the influence of both ambient field strength and orientation on the problem. Of those two characteristics, field orientation is far more important in the cases we have considered with βo = pg/pb ≥ 1. That is due to the geometry-sensitivity of field stretching/amplification from large-scale shearing motions around the bullet. When the ambient magnetic field is transverse to the bullet motion, even a very modest field, well below equipartition strength, can be amplified by field line stretching around the bullet within a couple of bullet crushing times so that Maxwell stresses become comparable to the ram pressure associated with the bullet motion. The possibility is discussed that those situations might lead to large, induced electric potentials capable of accelerating charged particles. When the ambient field is aligned to the bullet motion, on the other hand, reconnection-prone topologies develop that shorten the stretched field and release much of the excess energy it contains. In this geometry, the Maxwell stresses on the bullet never approach the ram pressure level. In both cases, however, the presence of a field with even moderate initial strength acts to help the flow realign itself around the bullet into a smoother, more laminar form. That reduces bullet fragmentation tendencies caused by destructive instabilities. Eddies seem less effective at field amplification than flows around the bullet, because fields within eddies tend to be expelled to the eddy perimeters. Similar effects cause the magnetic field within the bullet itself to be reduced below its initial value over time. For oblique fields, we expect that the transverse field cases modeled here are more generally relevant. What counts is whether field lines threading the face of the bullet are swept around it in a fashion that folds them (leading to reconnection) or that keeps them unidirectional one each side of the bullet. In the second instance, behaviors should resemble those of the transverse field cases. We estimate that this quasi-transverse behavior is appropriate whenever the angle, θ, between the motion and the field satisfies tan θ ≳ 1/M, where M is the bullet Mach number. From these simulations, we find support in either field geometry for the conclusions reached in previous studies that nonthermal radio emission associated with supersonic clumps is likely to be controlled largely by the generation of strong magnetic fields around the perimeters of the clumps, rather than local particle acceleration and field compression within the bow shock. In addition, since the magnetic pressure on the nose of the bullet likely becomes comparable to the ram pressure and hence the total pressure behind the bow shock, the gas pressure there could be substantially lower than that in a gasdynamical bullet. That means, as well, that the temperature in the region on the nose of the bullet would be lower than that predicted in the gasdynamical case. That detail could alter expectations of the thermal emission, including X-rays and UV-IR lines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)365-382
Number of pages18
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 PART I
StatePublished - 1996


  • Hydrodynamics
  • Instabilities
  • MHD
  • Plasmas
  • Stars: Formation
  • Supernova remnants


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