Formation of an Accretion Flow

C. Bonnerot*, N. C. Stone

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


After a star has been tidally disrupted by a black hole, the debris forms an elongated stream. We start by studying the evolution of this gas before its bound part returns to the original stellar pericenter. While the axial motion is entirely ballistic, the transverse directions of the stream are usually thinner due to the confining effects of self-gravity. This basic picture may also be influenced by additional physical effects such as clump formation, hydrogen recombination, magnetic fields and the interaction with the ambient medium. We then examine the fate of this stream when it comes back to the vicinity of the black hole to form an accretion flow. Despite recent progress, the hydrodynamics of this phase remains uncertain due to computational limitations that have so far prevented us from performing a fully self-consistent simulation. Most of the initial energy dissipation appears to be provided by a self-crossing shock that results from an intersection of the stream with itself. The debris evolution during this collision depends on relativistic apsidal precession, expansion of the stream from pericenter, and nodal precession induced by the black hole spin. Although the combined influence of these effects is not fully understood, current works suggest that this interaction is typically too weak to significantly circularize the trajectories, with its main consequence being an expansion of the shocked gas. Global simulations of disc formation performed for simplified initial conditions find that the debris experiences additional collisions that cause its orbits to become more circular until eventually settling into a thick and extended structure. These works suggest that this process completes faster for more relativistic encounters due to the stronger shocks involved. It is instead significantly delayed if weaker shocks take place, allowing the gas to retain large eccentricities during multiple orbits. Radiation produced as the matter gets heated by circularizing shocks may leave the system through photon diffusion and participate in the emerging luminosity. This current picture of accretion flow formation results from recent theoretical works synthesizing the interplay between different aspects of physics. In comparison, early analytical works correctly identified the essential processes involved in disc formation, but had difficulty developing analytic frameworks that accurately combined non-linear hydrodynamical processes with the underlying relativistic dynamics. However, important aspects still remain to be understood at the time of writing, due to numerical challenges and the complexity of this process.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number16
JournalSpace Science Reviews
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V. part of Springer Nature.


  • Accretion discs
  • Black holes
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Tidal disruption events


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