Thermal instability in gravitationally stratified plasmas: Implications for multiphase structure in clusters and galaxy haloes

Michael Mccourt, Prateek Sharma, Eliot Quataert, Ian J. Parrish

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

268 Scopus citations


We study the interplay among cooling, heating, conduction and magnetic fields in gravitationally stratified plasmas using simplified, plane-parallel numerical simulations. Since the physical heating mechanism remains uncertain in massive haloes such as groups or clusters, we adopt a simple, phenomenological prescription which enforces global thermal equilibrium and prevents a cooling flow. The plasma remains susceptible to local thermal instability, however, and cooling drives an inward flow of material. For physically plausible heating mechanisms in clusters, the thermal stability of the plasma is independent of its convective stability. We find that the ratio of the cooling time-scale to the dynamical time-scale t cool/t ff controls the non-linear evolution and saturation of the thermal instability: when t cool/t ff≲ 1, the plasma develops extended multiphase structure, whereas when t cool/t ff≳ 1 it does not. (In a companion paper, we show that the criterion for thermal instability in a more realistic, spherical potential is somewhat less stringent, t cool/t ff≲ 10.) When thermal conduction is anisotropic with respect to the magnetic field, the criterion for multiphase gas is essentially independent of the thermal conductivity of the plasma. Our criterion for local thermal instability to produce multiphase structure is an extension of the cold versus hot accretion modes in galaxy formation that applies at all radii in hot haloes, not just to the virial shock. We show that this criterion is consistent with data on multiphase gas in galaxy groups and clusters; in addition, when t cool/t ff≳ 1, the net cooling rate to low temperatures and the mass flux to small radii are suppressed enough relative to models without heating to be qualitatively consistent with star formation rates and X-ray line emission in groups and clusters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3319-3337
Number of pages19
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Galaxies: clusters: intracluster medium
  • Galaxies: evolution
  • Galaxies: haloes


Dive into the research topics of 'Thermal instability in gravitationally stratified plasmas: Implications for multiphase structure in clusters and galaxy haloes'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this