Why isn't interstellar medium pulled in towards nearest massive object?

  • How does the ISM resist gravity? That's the only force acting on it, and all other particles seem to collect together to form stars. What makes the ISM so special among other particles?

    Why do you think that the ISM resists gravity?

  • pela

    pela Correct answer

    5 years ago

    It is not true that the particles in the interstellar medium (ISM) are only acted upon by gravity. For instance,

    1. In many cases a significant part of the ISM is ionized, in which case it interacts with magnetic field which permeates the gas and may in some cases be quite strong.

    2. In the vicinity of massive and hence luminous stars, radiation pressure may exert a strong force on the ISM. They also emit copious amounts of cosmic rays (i.e. relativistic particles) that transfer momentum to the surrounding gas.

    3. Supernova explosions create hot bubbles that expand and sweep through the ISM, resulting in shock waves and galactic outflows.

    In most cases, however, what may prevent a gas cloud from collapsing is simply its temperature.
    Despite all the above processes, and despite gravity being the weakest force, gas clouds do sometimes collapse to form stars. The criterion for doing so is that the gas is dense enough, and that its internal pressure (or thermal energy) is weak enough. This is described by Jeans instability, which formulates the criterion for a cloud of gas to collapse through equating pressure forces, or thermal energy, to gravity. One way to express this is the Jeans mass $M_J$ (Jeans 1902) which is the critical mass of a cloud where thermal energy is exactly balanced by gravitational forces:
    M_J = \rho \left( \frac{\pi k_B T}{4 \mu m_\mathrm{u} G \rho} \right)^{3/2} \\
    \propto \frac{T^{3/2}}{\rho^{1/2}}.

    Here, $k_B$, $G$, and $m_u$ are Boltzmannn's constant, the gravitational constant, and the atomic mass unit, while $T$, $\mu$, and $\rho$ are the temperature, the mean molecular mass, and the density of the gas.

    In the second line of the equation it is emphasized that $M_J$ increases with temperature, and decreases with density. In other words, if the gas is too hot, or too dilute, the total mass needed to collapse must be higher.

    In general, gas will not collapse to form stars if the temperature is above some $10^4\,\mathrm{K}$. If the temperature is higher, the particles simply move too fast. Since various processes may easily heat the ISM to millions of degrees, the gas has to cool before it can collapse. On way to do this is by cooling radiation: Fast-moving atoms collide (either with each other or, more often, with electrons). Some of the kinetic energy of the atoms is spent exciting their electrons to higher levels. When the atoms de-excite, photons are emitted which can leave the system. The net result is that thermal energy is removed from the cloud, until at some point it has cooled enough to collapse.

    So, ...., this begs the question: "What is the temperature *and* density of the ISM?".

    @EricTowers: Temperatures in the ISM may, in principle, take any value from a few Kelvin to several (tens of) millions of Kelvin. However, various cooling processes makes the gas reach certain "plateaus" of temperatures. I previously discussed exactly that in an answer to How cold is interstellar space?. Wrt. densities ($n$), the various phases of the ISM tend to be _very roughly_ in pressure equilibrium, such that the product $nT$ is more or less constant.

    That is, whereas a warm $T\sim10^4$ K cloud may have a density of $n\sim0.1$–$1$ particles per cm$^3$, a surrounding, hot $T\sim10^6$ K envelope will have $n\sim0.001$–$0.01$ cm$^{-3}$. And a small $T\sim10^2$ K molecular cloud will have densities of $n\sim10$–$10^2$ cm$^{-3}$ (and higher).

    @EricTowers: it doesn't *beg* the question, it *raises*, or *prompts* the question. Begging the question, or petitio principii, is a logical fallacy in which the writer or speaker assumes the statement under examination to be true. See http://grammarist.com/rhetoric/begging-the-question-fallacy/

    @Jim421616 : "It's a translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii, and it's used to mean that someone has made a conclusion based on a premise that lacks support." "In modern vernacular usage, 'to beg the question' frequently appears to mean 'to raise the question' (as in, 'This begs the question, whether...')" As this is not the 16th century, I am not limited by the past's mistranslations and usage of the phrase. All I asked for was the support.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM