Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Particle Acceleration and Nonthermal Emission in Relativistic Astrophysical Shocks
by Sironi, Lorenzo, Ph.D., Princeton University, 2011, 227; 3481715
Abstract (Summary)

The common observational feature of Pulsar Wind Nebulae (PWNe), gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), and AGN jets is a broad nonthermal spectrum of synchrotron and inverse Compton radiation. It is usually assumed that the emitting electrons are accelerated to a power-law distribution at relativistic shocks, via the so-called Fermi mechanism. Despite decades of research, the Fermi acceleration process is still not understood from first principles. An assessment of the micro-physics of particle acceleration in relativistic shocks is of paramount importance to unveil the properties of astrophysical nonthermal sources, and it is the subject of this dissertation.

In the first part of this thesis, I explore by means of fully-kinetic first-principle particle-in-cell (PIC) simulations the properties of relativistic shocks that propagate in electron-positron and electron-proton plasmas carrying uniform magnetic fields. I find that nonthermal particle acceleration only occurs if the upstream magnetization is weak (sigma<0.001), or if the pre-shock field is nearly aligned with the shock direction of propagation (quasi-parallel shocks). Relativistic shocks in PWNe, GRBs and AGN jets are usually thought to be appreciably magnetized (sigma>0.01) and quasi-perpendicular, yet they need to be efficient particle accelerators, in order to explain the prominent nonthermal signatures of these sources. Motivated by this discrepancy, I then relax the assumption of uniform pre-shock fields, and investigate the acceleration efficiency of perpendicular shocks that propagate in high-sigma flows with alternating magnetic fields. This is the geometry expected at the termination shock of pulsar winds, but it could also be relevant for Poynting-dominated jets in GRBs and AGNs. I show by means of PIC simulations that compression of the flow at the shock will force annihilation of nearby field lines, a process known as shock-driven reconnection. Magnetic reconnection can efficiently transfer the energy of alternating fields to the particles, generating flat power-law tails containing most of the particles. Finally, I directly relate the results of my PIC simulations to observations of nonthermal sources, by presenting a numerical technique that I have developed in order to extract ab initio photon spectra from PIC simulations of shocks. With this technique, I have modeled the emission from GRB jets, ruling out a class of models that relied on the so-called jitter radiation. This reinforces the idea that a detailed understanding of the micro-physics of particle acceleration in relativistic shocks is required in order to correctly interpret the emission signatures of astrophysical nonthermal sources.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Spitkovsky, Anatoly
Commitee: Beloborodov, Andrei, Burrows, Adam, Goodman, Jeremy, Stone, James, Strauss, Michael
School: Princeton University
Department: Astrophysical Sciences
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-B 73/03, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Astrophysics, Astronomy, Plasma physics
Keywords: Acceleration of particles, Active galactic nuclei jets, Gamma-ray bursts, Nonthermal radiation, Pulsars, Shock waves
Publication Number: 3481715
ISBN: 978-1-267-01134-3
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