Time dependence in relativistic collisionless shocks: Theory of the variable "wisps" in the Crab Nebula

Anatoly Spitkovsky, Jonathan Arons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


We describe results from time-dependent numerical modeling of the collisionless reverse shock terminating the pulsar wind in the Crab Nebula. We treat the upstream relativistic wind as composed of ions and electron-positron plasma embedded in a toroidal magnetic field, flowing radially outward from the pulsar in a sector around the rotational equator. The relativistic cyclotron instability of the ion gyrational orbit downstream of the leading shock in the electron-positron pairs launches outward-propagating magnetosonic waves. Because of the fresh supply of ions crossing the shock, this time-dependent process achieves a limit cycle, in which the waves are launched with periodicity on the order of the ion Larmor time. Compressions in the magnetic field and pair density associated with these waves, as well as their propagation speed, semiquantitatively reproduce the behavior of the wisp and ring features described in recent observations obtained using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. By selecting the parameters of the ion orbits to fit the spatial separation of the wisps, we predict the period of time variability of the wisps that is consistent with the data. When coupled with a mechanism for nonthermal acceleration of the pairs, the compressions in the magnetic field and plasma density associated with the optical wisp structure naturally account for the location of X-ray features in the Crab. We also discuss the origin of the high-energy ions and their acceleration in the equatorial current sheet of the pulsar wind.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)669-681
Number of pages13
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2 I
StatePublished - Mar 10 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Acceleration of particles
  • ISM: individual (Crab Nebula)
  • Pulsars: general
  • Pulsars: individual (Crab Pulsar)
  • Shock waves


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