Instability of supersonic cold streams feeding galaxies - I. Linear Kelvin-Helmholtz instability with body modes

Nir Mandelker, Dan Padnos, Avishai Dekel, Yuval Birnboim, Andreas Burkert, Mark R. Krumholz, Elad Steinberg

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44 Scopus citations


Massive galaxies at high redshift are predicted to be fed from the cosmic web by narrow, dense streams of cold gas that penetrate through the hot medium encompassed by a stable shock near the virial radius of the dark-matter halo. Our long-term goal is to explore the heating and dissipation rate of the streams and their fragmentation and possible breakup, in order to understand how galaxies are fed, and how this affects their star formation rate and morphology. We present here the first step, where we analyse the linear Kelvin-Helmholtz instability (KHI) of a cold, dense slab or cylinder in 3D flowing supersonically through a hot, dilute medium. The current analysis is limited to the adiabatic case with no gravity. By analytically solving the linear dispersion relation, we find a transition from a dominance of the familiar rapidly growing surface modes in the subsonic regime to more slowly growing body modes in the supersonic regime. The system is parametrized by three parameters: the density contrast between stream and medium, the Mach number of stream velocity with respect to the medium and the stream width with respect to the halo virial radius. A realistic choice for these parameters places the streams near themode transition, with the KHI exponential-growth time in the range 0.01-10 virial crossing times for a perturbation wavelength comparable to the stream width. We confirm our analytic predictions with idealized hydrodynamical simulations. Our linear estimates thus indicate that KHI may be effective in the evolution of streams before they reach the galaxy. More definite conclusions await the extension of the analysis to the non-linear regime and the inclusion of cooling, thermal conduction, the halo potential well, self-gravity and magnetic fields.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)3921-3947
Number of pages27
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - 21 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s).


  • Galaxies: evolution
  • Galaxies: formation
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Instabilities


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