Among the incredibly diverse variety of astrophysical objects, there are some that are characterized by very extreme physical conditions not encountered anywhere else in the Universe. Of special interest are ultra-magnetized systems that possess magnetic fields exceeding the critical quantum field of about 44 TG. There are basically only two classes of such objects: magnetars, whose magnetic activity is manifested, e.g., via their very short but intense gamma-ray flares, and central engines of supernovae (SNe) and gamma-ray bursts (GRBs)—the most powerful explosions in the modern Universe. Figuring out how these complex systems work necessarily requires understanding various plasma processes, both small-scale kinetic and large-scale magnetohydrodynamic (MHD), that govern their behavior. However, the presence of an ultra-strong magnetic field modifies the underlying basic physics to such a great extent that relying on conventional, classical plasma physics is often not justified. Instead, plasma-physical problems relevant to these extreme astrophysical environments call for constructing relativistic quantum plasma (RQP) physics based on quantum electrodynamics (QED). In this review, after briefly describing the astrophysical systems of interest and identifying some of the key plasma-physical problems important to them, we survey the recent progress in the development of such a theory. We first discuss the ways in which the presence of a super-critical field modifies the properties of vacuum and matter and then outline the basic theoretical framework for describing both non-relativistic and RQPs. We then turn to some specific astrophysical applications of relativistic QED plasma physics relevant to magnetar magnetospheres and to central engines of core-collapse SNe and long GRBs. Specifically, we discuss the propagation of light through a magnetar magnetosphere; large-scale MHD processes driving magnetar activity and responsible for jet launching and propagation in GRBs; energy-transport processes governing the thermodynamics of extreme plasma environments; micro-scale kinetic plasma processes important in the interaction of intense electric currents flowing through a magnetar magnetosphere with the neutron star surface; and magnetic reconnection of ultra-strong magnetic fields. Finally, we point out that future progress in applying RQP physics to real astrophysical problems will require the development of suitable numerical modeling capabilities.
Reports on Progress in Physics
- Pub Date:
- March 2014
- Astrophysics - High Energy Astrophysical Phenomena;
- Physics - Plasma Physics
- 56 pages, 1 figure. Invited review accepted for publication in Reports on Progress in Physics