Formation of spiral-arm spurs and bound clouds in vertically stratified galactic gas disks

Woong Tae Kim, Eve Charis Ostriker

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118 Scopus citations


We investigate the growth of spiral-arm substructure in vertically stratified, self-gravitating, galactic gas disks, using local numerical MHD simulations. Our new models extend our previous two-dimensional studies, which showed that a magnetized spiral shock in a thin disk can undergo magneto-Jeans instability (MJI), resulting in regularly spaced interarm spur structures and massive gravitationally bound fragments. Similar spur (or "feather") features have recently been seen in high-resolution observations of several galaxies. Here we consider two sets of numerical models: two-dimensional simulations that use a "thick-disk" gravitational kernel, and three-dimensional simulations with explicit vertical stratification. Both models adopt an isothermal equation of state with cs = 7 km s-1. When disks are sufficiently magnetized and self-gravitating, the result in both sorts of models is the growth of spiralarm substructure similar to that in our previous razor-thin models. Reduced self-gravity due to nonzero disk thickness increases the spur spacing to ∼10 times the Jeans length at the arm peak. Bound clouds that form from spur fragmentation have masses ∼(1 -3) × 107 M each, similar to the largest observed GMCs. The mass-to-flux ratios and specific angular momenta of the bound condensations are lower than large-scale galactic values, as is true for observed GMCs. We find that unmagnetized or weakly magnetized two-dimensional models are unstable to the "wiggle instability" previously identified by Wada & Koda. However, our fully three-dimensional models do not show this effect. Nonsteady motions and strong vertical shear prevent coherent vortical structures from forming, evidently suppressing the wiggle instability. We also find no clear traces of Parker instability in the nonlinear spiral arm substructures that emerge, although conceivably Parker modes may help seed the MJI at early stages since azimuthal wavelengths are similar.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)213-231
Number of pages19
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue numberI
StatePublished - Jul 20 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Galaxies: ISM
  • ISM: kinematics and dynamics
  • ISM: magnetic fields
  • Instabilities
  • MHD
  • Stars: formation


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