Radiation pressure-supported starburst disks and active galactic nucleus fueling

Todd A. Thompson, Eliot Quataert, Norman Murray

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605 Scopus citations


We consider the structure of marginally Toomre-stable starburst disks under the assumption that radiation pressure on dust grains provides the dominant vertical support against gravity. This assumption is particularly appropriate when the disk is optically thick to its own infrared radiation, as in the central regions of ULIRGs. We argue that because the disk radiates at its Eddington limit (for dust), the "Schmidt law" for star formation changes in the optically thick limit, with the star formation rate per unit area scaling as Σ̇* ∝ Σg/κ, where Σg is the gas surface density and κ is the mean opacity of the disk. Our calculations further show that optically thick starburst disks have a characteristic flux, star formation rate per unit area, and dust effective temperature of F ∼ 1013 L kpc -2, Σ̇* ∼ 103 M yr-1 kpc-2, and Teff ∼ 90 K, respectively. We compare our model predictions with observations of ULIRGs and find good agreement. We extend our model of starburst disks from many hundred parsec scales to subparsec scales and address the problem of fueling AGNs. We assume that angular momentum transport proceeds via global torques (e.g., spiral waves, winds, or a central bar) rather than a local viscosity. We consistently account for the radial depletion of gas due to star formation and find a strong bifurcation between two classes of disk models: (1) solutions with a starburst on large scales that consumes all of the gas with little or no fueling of a central AGN and (2) models with an outer large-scale starburst accompanied by a more compact starburst on 1-10 pc scales and a bright central AGN. The luminosity of the latter models is in many cases dominated by the AGN, although these disk solutions exhibit a broad mid- to far-infrared peak from star formation. We show that the vertical thickness of the starburst disk on parsec scales can approach h ∼ r, perhaps accounting for the nuclear obscuration in some type 2 AGNs. We also argue that the disk of young stars in the Galactic center may be the remnant of such a compact nuclear starburst.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)167-185
Number of pages19
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 I
StatePublished - Sep 1 2005
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Accretion, accretion disks
  • Galaxies: formation
  • Galaxies: general
  • Galaxies: starburst
  • Galaxy: center
  • Quasars: general


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