Particle acceleration in relativistic magnetized collisionless pair shocks: Dependence of shock acceleration on magnetic obliquity

Lorenzo Sironi, Anatoly Spitkovsky

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We investigate shock structure and particle acceleration in relativistic magnetized collisionless pair shocks by means of 2.5D and 3D particle-in-cell simulations. We explore a range of inclination angles between the pre-shock magnetic field and the shock normal. We find that onlymagnetic inclinations corresponding to "subluminal" shocks, where relativistic particles following the magnetic field can escape ahead of the shock, lead to particle acceleration. The downstream spectrum in such shocks consists of a relativistic Maxwellian and a high-energy power-law tail with exponential cutoff. For increasing magnetic inclination in the subluminal range, the high-energy tail accounts for an increasing fraction of particles (from ∼1% to ∼2%) and energy (from ∼4% to ∼12%). The spectral index of the power law increases with angle from -2.8±0.1 to -2.3±0.1. For nearly parallel shocks, particle energization mostly proceeds via the diffusive shock acceleration process; the upstream scattering is provided by oblique waves which are generated by the high-energy particles that escape upstream. For larger subluminal inclinations, shockdrift acceleration is the main acceleration mechanism, and the upstream oblique waves regulate injection into the acceleration process. For "superluminal" shocks, self-generated shock turbulence is not strong enough to overcome the kinematic constraints, and the downstream particle spectrum does not show any significant suprathermal tail. As seen from the upstream frame, efficient acceleration in relativistic (Lorentz factor γ0 ≳ 5) magnetized (σ ≳ 0.03) flows exists only for a very small range of magnetic inclination angles (≲ 34°/γ0), so relativistic astrophysical pair shocks have to be either nearly parallel or weakly magnetized to generate nonthermal particles. These findings place constraints on the models of pulsar wind nebulae, gamma-ray bursts, and jets from active galactic nuclei that invoke particle acceleration in relativistic magnetized shocks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1523-1549
Number of pages27
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 20 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Acceleration of particles
  • Gamma rays: bursts
  • Shock waves


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