In astronomy, the interstellar medium (or ISM) is the gas and dust that pervade interstellar space: the matter that exists between the star systems within a galaxy. It fills interstellar space and blends smoothly into the surrounding intergalactic space. The energy that occupies the same volume, in the form of electromagnetic radiation, is the interstellar radiation field.
The interstellar medium consists of an extremely dilute (by terrestrial standards) mixture of ions, atoms, molecules, larger dust grains, cosmic rays, and (galactic) magnetic fields. The matter consists of about 99% gas and 1% dust by mass. Densities range from a few thousand to a few hundred million particles per cubic meter with an average value in the Milky Way Galaxy of a million particles per cubic meter (1 atom per cubic centimeter). The Sun, for example, is presently traveling through the Local Interstellar Cloud (0.1 atoms/cc), within the Local Bubble (0.05 atoms/cc). As a result of primordial nucleosynthesis, gas in the ISM is roughly 89% hydrogen and 9% helium and 2% elements heavier than hydrogen or helium by number of protons, with additional heavier elements ("metals" in astronomical parlance) present in trace amounts.
The ISM plays a crucial role in astrophysics precisely because of its intermediate role between stellar and galactic scales. Stars form within the densest regions of the ISM, molecular clouds, and replenish the ISM with matter and energy through planetary nebulae, stellar winds, and supernovae. This interplay between stars and the ISM helps determine the rate at which a galaxy depletes its gaseous content, and therefore its lifespan of active star formation.
Table 1 shows a breakdown of the properties of the components of the ISM of the Milky Way.
|State of hydrogen||Primary observational techniques|
|Molecular clouds||< 1%||70||10—20||102—106||molecular||Radio and infrared molecular emission and absorption lines|
|Cold Neutral Medium (CNM)||1—5%||100—300||50—100||20—50||neutral atomic||H I 21 cm line absorption|
|Warm Neutral Medium (WNM)||10—20%||300—400||6000—10000||0.2—0.5||neutral atomic||H I 21 cm line emission|
|Warm Ionized Medium (WIM)||20—50%||1000||8000||0.2—0.5||ionized||Hα emission and pulsar dispersion|
|H II regions||< 1%||70||8000||102—104||ionized||Hα emission and pulsar dispersion|
Hot Ionized Medium (HIM)
(metals also highly ionized)
|X-ray emission; absorption lines of highly ionized metals, primarily in the ultraviolet|
Field, Goldsmith & Habing (1969) put forward the static two phase equilibrium model to explain the observed properties of the ISM. Their modeled ISM consisted of a cold dense phase (T < 300 K), consisting of clouds of neutral and molecular hydrogen, and a warm intercloud phase (T ~ 104 K), consisting of rarefied neutral and ionized gas. McKee & Ostriker (1977) added a dynamic third phase that represented the very hot (T ~ 106 K) gas which had been shock heated by supernovae and constituted most of the volume of the ISM. These phases are the temperatures where heating and cooling can reach a stable equilibrium. Their paper formed the basis for further study over the past three decades. However, the relative proportions of the phases and their subdivisions are still not well known (Ferriere 2001).
The ISM is turbulent and therefore full of structure on all spatial scales.
Stellar winds from young clusters of stars (often with giant or supergiant HII regions surrounding them) and shock waves created by supernovae inject enormous amounts of energy into their surroundings, which leads to hypersonic turbulence. The resultant structures – of varying sizes – can be observed, such as stellar wind bubbles and superbubbles of hot gas, seen by X-ray satellite telescopes or turbulent flows observed in radio telescope maps.
The interstellar medium begins where the interplanetary medium of the Solar System ends. The solar wind slows to subsonic velocities at the termination shock, 90—100 astronomical units from the Sun. In the region beyond the termination shock, called the heliosheath, interstellar matter interacts with the solar wind. Voyager 1, the furthest human-made object from the Earth, crossed the termination shock on 2004-12-16 and may eventually enter interstellar space, providing the first direct probe of conditions in the ISM (Stone et al. 2005).
The ISM is also responsible for extinction and reddening, the decreasing light intensity and shift in the dominant observable wavelengths of light from a star. These effects are caused by scattering and absorption of photons and allow the ISM to be observed with the naked eye in a dark sky. The apparent rifts that can be seen in the band of the Milky Way— a uniform disk of stars— are caused by absorption of background starlight by molecular clouds within a few thousand light years of Earth.
Far ultraviolet light is absorbed effectively by the neutral components of the ISM. For example, a typical absorption wavelength of atomic hydrogen lies at about 121.5 nanometers, the Lyman-alpha transition. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to see light emitted at that wavelength from a star farther than a few hundred light years from Earth, because most of it is absorbed during the trip to Earth by intervening neutral hydrogen.
The ISM is usually far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Collisions establish a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution of velocities, and the 'temperature' normally used to describe interstellar gas is the 'kinetic temperature', which describes the temperature at which the particles would have the observed Maxwell-Boltzmann velocity distribution in thermodynamic equilibrium. However, the interstellar radiation field is typically much weaker than a medium in thermodynamic equilibrium; it is most often roughly that of an A star (surface temperature of ~10,000 K) highly diluted. Therefore, bound levels within an atom or molecule in the ISM are rarely populated according to the Boltzmann formula (Spitzer 1978, § 2.4).
Depending on the temperature, density, and ionization state of a portion of the ISM, different heating and cooling mechanisms determine the temperature of the gas.
Grain heating by thermal exchange is very important in supernova remnants where densities and temperatures are very high.
Gas heating via grain-gas collisions is dominant deep in giant molecular clouds (especially at high densities). Far infrared radiation penetrates deeply due to the low optical depth. Dust grains are heated via this radiation and can transfer thermal energy during collisions with the gas. A measure of efficiency in the heating is given by the accommodation coefficient:
where T is the gas temperature, Td the dust temperature, and T2 the post-collision temperature of the gas atom/molecule. This coefficient was measured by (Burke & Hollenbach 1983) as α = 0.35.
The nature of the interstellar medium has received the attention of astronomers and scientists over the centuries. However, they first had to acknowledge the basic concept of "interstellar" space. The term appears to have been first used in print by Bacon (1626, § 354–5): "The Interstellar Skie.. hath .. so much Affinity with the Starre, that there is a Rotation of that, as well as of the Starre." Later, natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1674) discussed "The inter-stellar part of heaven, which several of the modern Epicureans would have to be empty."
Before modern electromagnetic theory, early physicists postulated that an invisible luminiferous aether existed as a medium to carry lightwaves. It was assumed that this aether extended into interstellar space, as Patterson (1862) wrote, "this efflux occasions a thrill, or vibratory motion, in the ether which fills the interstellar spaces."
The advent of deep photographic imaging allowed Edward Barnard to produce the first images of dark nebulae silhouetted against the background star field of the galaxy, while the first actual detection of cold diffuse matter in interstellar space was made by Johannes Hartmann in 1904 through the use of absorption line spectroscopy. In his historic study of the spectrum and orbit of Delta Orionis, Hartmann observed the light coming from this star and realized that some of this light was being absorbed before it reached the Earth. Hartmann reported that absorption from the "K" line of calcium appeared "extraordinarily weak, but almost perfectly sharp" and also reported the "quite surprising result that the calcium line at 393.4 nanometres does not share in the periodic displacements of the lines caused by the orbital motion of the spectroscopic binary star". The stationary nature of the line led Hartmann to conclude that the gas responsible for the absorption was not present in the atmosphere of Delta Orionis, but was instead located within an isolated cloud of matter residing somewhere along the line-of-sight to this star. This discovery launched the study of the Interstellar Medium.
Following Hartmann's identification of interstellar calcium absorption, interstellar sodium was detected by Heger (1919) through the observation of stationary absorption from the atom's "D" lines at 589.0 and 589.6 nanometres towards Delta Orionis and Beta Scorpii.
Subsequent observations of the "H" and "K" lines of calcium by Beals (1936) revealed double and asymmetric profiles in the spectra of Epsilon and Zeta Orionis. These were the first steps in the study of the very complex interstellar sightline towards Orion. Asymmetric absorption line profiles are the result of the superposition of multiple absorption lines, each corresponding to the same atomic transition (for example the "K" line of calcium), but occurring in interstellar clouds with different radial velocities. Because each cloud has a different velocity (either towards or away from the observer/Earth) the absorption lines occurring within each cloud are either Blue-shifted or Red-shifted (respectively) from the lines' rest wavelength, through the Doppler Effect. These observations confirming that matter is not distributed homogeneously were the first evidence of multiple discrete clouds within the ISM.
The growing evidence for interstellar material led Pickering (1912) to comment that "While the interstellar absorbing medium may be simply the ether, yet the character of its selective absorption, as indicated by Kapteyn, is characteristic of a gas, and free gaseous molecules are certainly there, since they are probably constantly being expelled by the Sun and stars."
The same year Victor Hess's discovery of cosmic rays, highly energetic charged particles that rain onto the Earth from space, led others to speculate whether they also pervaded interstellar space. The following year the Norwegian explorer and physicist Kristian Birkeland wrote: "It seems to be a natural consequence of our points of view to assume that the whole of space is filled with electrons and flying electric ions of all kinds. We have assumed that each stellar system in evolutions throws off electric corpuscles into space. It does not seem unreasonable therefore to think that the greater part of the material masses in the universe is found, not in the solar [sic] systems or nebulae, but in 'empty' space" (Birkeland 1913).
Thorndike (1930) noted that "it could scarcely have been believed that the enormous gaps between the stars are completely void. Terrestrial aurorae are not improbably excited by charged particles from the Sun emitted by the Sun. If the millions of other stars are also ejecting ions, as is undoubtedly true, no absolute vacuum can exist within the galaxy."