A thermally stable heating mechanism for the intracluster medium: Turbulence, magnetic fields and plasma instabilities

M. W. Kunz, A. A. Schekochihin, S. C. Cowley, J. J. Binney, J. S. Sanders

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


We consider the problem of self-regulated heating and cooling in galaxy clusters and the implications for cluster magnetic fields and turbulence. Viscous heating of a weakly collisional magnetized plasma is regulated by the pressure anisotropy with respect to the local direction of the magnetic field. The intracluster medium is a high-beta plasma, where pressure anisotropies caused by the turbulent stresses and the consequent local changes in the magnetic field will trigger very fast microscale instabilities. We argue that the net effect of these instabilities will be to pin the pressure anisotropies at a marginal level, controlled by the plasma beta parameter. This gives rise to local heating rates that turn out to be comparable to the radiative cooling rates. Furthermore, we show that a balance between this heating and bremsstrahlung cooling is thermally stable, unlike the often conjectured balance between cooling and thermal conduction. Given a sufficient (and probably self-regulating) supply of turbulent power, this provides a physical mechanism for mitigating cooling flows and preventing cluster core collapse. For observed density and temperature profiles, the assumed balance of viscous heating and radiative cooling allows us to predict magnetic field strengths, turbulent velocities and turbulence scales as functions of distance from the centre. Specific predictions and comparisons with observations are given for several different clusters. Our predictions can be further tested by future observations of cluster magnetic fields and turbulent velocities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2446-2457
Number of pages12
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Conduction
  • Diffusion
  • Galaxies: clusters: intracluster medium
  • Instabilities
  • Magnetic fields
  • Turbulence


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