The stability of weakly collisional plasmas with thermal and composition gradients

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Over the last decade, substantial efforts have been devoted to understanding the stability properties, transport phenomena, and long-term evolution of weakly collisional, magnetized plasmas which are stratified in temperature. The insights gained via these studies have led to a significant improvement of our understanding of the processes that determine the physical evolution and observational properties of the intracluster medium (ICM) permeating galaxy clusters. These studies have been carried out under the assumption that the ICM is a homogeneous medium. This, however, might not be a good approximation if heavy elements are able to sediment in the inner region of the galaxy cluster. Motivated by the need to obtain a more complete picture of the dynamical properties of the ICM, we analyze the stability of a weakly collisional, magnetized plane-parallel atmosphere which is stratified in both temperature and composition. This allows us to discuss for the first time the dynamics of weakly collisional environments where heat conduction, momentum transport, and ion-diffusion are anisotropic with respect to the direction of the magnetic field. We show that depending on the relative signs and magnitudes of the gradients in the temperature and the mean molecular weight, the plasma can be subject to a wide variety of unstable modes which include modifications to the magnetothermal instability (MTI), the heat-flux-driven buoyancy instability (HBI), and overstable gravity modes previously studied in homogeneous media. We also find that there are new modes which are driven by heat conduction and particle diffusion. We discuss the astrophysical implications of our findings for a representative galaxy cluster where helium has sedimented. Our findings suggest that the core insulation that results from the magnetic field configurations that arise as a natural consequence of the HBI, which would be MTI stable in a homogeneous medium, could be alleviated if the mean molecular weight gradient is steep enough, i.e., (¿µ)/µ > (¿T)/T. This study constitutes a first step toward understanding the interaction between magnetic turbulence and the diffusion of heavy elements, and its consequences for the long-term evolution and observational signatures of the ICM in galaxy clusters.
TidsskriftThe Astrophysical Journal
Udgave nummer1
StatusUdgivet - 10 feb. 2013

ID: 45576005