Substellar fragmentation in self-gravitating fluids with a major phase transition

A Fuglistaler and D Pfenniger, ASTRONOMY & ASTROPHYSICS, 578, A18 (2015).

DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/201424798

Context. The observation of various ices in cold molecular clouds, the existence of ubiquitous substellar, cold H-2 globules in planetary nebulae and supernova remnants, or the mere existence of comets suggest that the physics of very cold interstellar gas might be much richer than usually envisioned. At the extreme of low temperatures (less than or similar to 10 K), H-2 itself is subject to a phase transition crossing the entire cosmic gas density scale. Aims. This well-known, laboratory- based fact motivates us to study the ideal case of a cold neutral gaseous medium in interstellar conditions for which the bulk of the mass, instead of trace elements, is subject to a gas-liquid or gas-solid phase transition. Methods. On the one hand, the equilibrium of general non-ideal fluids is studied using the virial theorem and linear stability analysis. On the other hand, the non-linear dynamics is studied using computer simulations to characterize the expected formation of solid bodies analogous to comets. The simulations are run with a state-of-the-art molecular dynamics code (LAMMPS) using the Lennard-Jones inter-molecular potential. The long-range gravitational forces can be taken into account together with short-range molecular forces with finite limited computational resources, using super- molecules, provided the right scaling is followed. Results. The concept of super-molecule, where the phase transition conditions are preserved by the proper choice of the particle parameters, is tested with computer simulations, allowing us to correctly satisfy the Jeans instability criterion for one-phase fluids. The simulations show that fluids presenting a phase transition are gravitationally unstable as well, independent of the strength of the gravitational potential, producing two distinct kinds of substellar bodies, those dominated by gravity (planetoids) and those dominated by molecular attractive force (comets). Conclusions. Observations, formal analysis, and computer simulations suggest the possibility of the formation of substellar H2 clumps in cold molecular clouds due to the combination of phase transition and gravity. Fluids presenting a phase transition are gravitationally unstable, independent of the strength of the gravitational potential. Arbitrarily small H-2 clumps may form even at relatively high temperatures up to 400-600 K, according to virial analysis. The combination of phase transition and gravity may be relevant for a wider range of astrophysical situations, such as proto-planetary disks.

Return to Publications page