Magnetofluid dynamics of magnetized cosmic plasma: Firehose and gyrothermal instabilities

A. A. Schekochihin, S. C. Cowley, F. Rincon, M. S. Rosin

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Both global dynamics and turbulence in magnetized weakly collisional cosmic plasmas are described by general magnetofluid equations that contain pressure anisotropies and heat fluxes that must be calculated from microscopic plasma kinetic theory. It is shown that even without a detailed calculation of the pressure anisotropy or the heat fluxes, one finds the macroscale dynamics to be generically unstable to microscale Alfvénically polarized fluctuations. Two instabilities that can be treated this way are considered in detail: the parallel firehose instability (including the finite Larmor radius effects that determine the growth rate and scale of the fastest growing mode) and the gyrothermal instability (GTI). The latter is a new result - it is shown that a parallel ion heat flux destabilizes Alfvénically polarized fluctuations even in the absence of the negative pressure anisotropy required for the firehose. The main physical conclusion is that both pressure anisotropies and heat fluxes associated with the macroscale dynamics trigger plasma microinstabilities and, therefore, their values will likely be set by the non-linear evolution of these instabilities. Ideas for understanding this non-linear evolution are discussed. It is argued that cosmic plasmas will generically be 'three-scale systems', comprising global dynamics, mesoscale turbulence and microscale plasma fluctuations. The astrophysical example of cool cores of galaxy clusters is considered quantitatively and it is noted that observations point to turbulence in clusters (velocity, magnetic and temperature fluctuations) being in a marginal state with respect to plasma microinstabilities and so it is the plasma microphysics that is likely to set the heating and conduction properties of the intracluster medium. In particular, a lower bound on the scale of temperature fluctuations implied by the GTI is derived.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)291-300
Number of pages10
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 2010
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Galaxies: clusters: general
  • Instabilities
  • MHD
  • Magnetic fields
  • Plasmas
  • Turbulence


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