Dynamics of dusty radiation-pressure-driven shells and clouds: Fast outflows from galaxies, star clusters, massive stars, and AGN

Todd A. Thompson, Andrew C. Fabian, Eliot Quataert, Norman Murray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Scopus citations


It is typically assumed that radiation-pressure-driven winds are accelerated to an asymptotic velocity of v ≃ vesc, where vesc is the escape velocity from the central source. We note that this is not the case for dusty shells and clouds. Instead, if the shell or cloud is initially optically thick to the UV emission from the source of luminosity L, then there is a significant boost in v that reflects the integral of the momentum absorbed as it is accelerated. For shells reaching a generalized Eddington limit, we show that v ≃ (4RUVL/Mshc)1/2, in both point-mass and isothermal-sphere potentials, where RUV is the radius where the shell becomes optically thin to UV photons, and Msh is the mass of the shell. The asymptotic velocity significantly exceeds vesc for typical parameters, and can explain the ~1000-2000 km s-1 outflows observed from rapidly star-forming galaxies and active galactic nuclei (AGN) if the surrounding halo has low gas density. Similarly fast outflows from massive stars can be accelerated on ~few-103 yr time-scales. These results carry over to clouds that subtend only a small fraction of the solid angle from the source of radiation and that expand as a consequence of their internal sound speed. We further consider the dynamics of shells that sweep up a dense circumstellar or circumgalactic medium. We calculate the 'momentum ratio' M˙ v/(L/c) in the shell limit and show that it can only significantly exceed ~2 if the effective optical depth of the shell to re-radiated far-infrared photons is much larger than unity. We discuss simple prescriptions for the properties of galactic outflows for use in large-scale cosmological simulations. We also briefly discuss applications to the dusty ejection episodes of massive stars, the disruption of giant molecular clouds, and AGN.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-161
Number of pages15
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 23 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Galax


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