Critical Velocity Ionization in Substellar Atmospheres

A. D. Wilson, I. Dobbs-Dixon, D. A. Diver, C. R. Stark

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The observation of radio, X-ray, and H α emission from substellar objects indicates the presence of plasma regions and associated high-energy processes in their surrounding envelopes. This paper numerically simulates and characterizes critical velocity ionization (CVI), a potential ionization process, that can efficiently generate plasma as a result of neutral gas flows interacting with seed magnetized plasmas. By coupling a gas–magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) interactions code (to simulate the ionization mechanism) with a substellar global circulation model (to provide the required gas flows), we quantify the spatial extent of the resulting plasma regions, their degree of ionization, and their lifetime for a typical substellar atmosphere. It is found that the typical average ionization fraction reached at equilibrium (where the ionization and recombination rates are equal and opposite) ranges from 10‑5 to 10‑8, at pressures between 10‑1 and 10‑3 bar, with a trend of increasing ionization fraction with decreasing atmospheric pressure. The ionization fractions reached as a result of CVI are sufficient to allow magnetic fields to couple to gas flows in the atmosphere.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number138
Pages (from-to)138
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 20 2019


  • Magnetohydrodynamics
  • Ionization
  • Brown dwarfs
  • Extrasolar gas giants
  • Astrophysical fluid dynamics


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