Interstellar metastable helium absorption as a probe of the cosmic-ray ionization rate

Nick Indriolo, L. M. Hobbs, K. H. Hinkle, Benjamin J. McCall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The ionization rate of interstellar material by cosmic rays has been a major source of controversy, with different estimates varying by three orders of magnitude. Observational constraints of this rate have all depended on analyzing the chemistry of various molecules that are produced following cosmic-ray ionization, and in many cases these analyses contain significant uncertainties. Even in the simplest case (H+ 3), the derived ionization rate depends on an (uncertain) estimate of the absorption path length. In this paper, we examine the feasibility of inferring the cosmic-ray ionization rate using the 10830 Å absorption line of metastable helium. Observations through the diffuse clouds toward HD 183143 are presented, but yield only an upper limit on the metastable helium column density. A thorough investigation of He+ chemistry reveals that only a small fraction of He+ will recombine into the triplet state and populate the metastable level. In addition, excitation to the triplet manifold of helium by secondary electrons must be accounted for as it is the dominant mechanism which produces He* in some environments. Incorporating these various formation and destruction pathways, we derive new equations for the steady state abundance of metastable helium. Using these equations in concert with our observations, we find ζHe < 1.2 × 10-15 s-1, an upper limit about 5 times larger than the ionization rate previously inferred for this sight line using H+ 3. While observations of interstellar He* are extremely difficult at present, and the background chemistry is not nearly as simple as previously thought, potential future observations of metastable helium would provide an independent check on the cosmic-ray ionization rate derived from H+ 3 in diffuse molecular clouds, and, perhaps more importantly, allow the first direct measurements of the ionization rate in diffuse atomic clouds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2131-2137
Number of pages7
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2009


  • Astrochemistry
  • Atomic processes
  • Cosmic rays

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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