The implications of a high cosmic-ray ionization rate in diffuse interstellar clouds

Nick Indriolo, Brian D. Fields, Benjamin J. McCall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Diffuse interstellar clouds show large abundances of H+ 3 which can only be maintained by a high ionization rate of H 2. Cosmic rays are the dominant ionization mechanism in this environment, so the large ionization rate implies a high cosmic-ray flux, and a large amount of energy residing in cosmic rays. In this paper, we find that the standard propagated cosmic-ray spectrum predicts an ionization rate much lower than that inferred from H+ 3. Low-energy (∼10 MeV) cosmic rays are the most efficient at ionizing hydrogen, but cannot be directly detected; consequently, an otherwise unobservable enhancement of the low-energy cosmic-ray flux offers a plausible explanation for the H+ 3 results. Beyond ionization, cosmic rays also interact with the interstellar medium by spalling atomic nuclei and exciting atomic nuclear states. These processes produce the light elements Li, Be, and B, as well as gamma-ray lines. To test the consequences of an enhanced low-energy cosmic-ray flux, we adopt two physically motivated cosmic-ray spectra which by construction reproduce the ionization rate inferred in diffuse clouds, and investigate the implications of these spectra on dense cloud ionization rates, light-element abundances, gamma-ray fluxes, and energetics. One spectrum proposed here provides an explanation for the high ionization rate seen in diffuse clouds while still appearing to be broadly consistent with other observables, but the shape of this spectrum suggests that supernovae remnants may not be the predominant accelerators of low-energy cosmic rays.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)257-267
Number of pages11
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2009


  • Astrochemistry
  • Cosmic rays
  • ISM: clouds
  • ISM: molecules

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'The implications of a high cosmic-ray ionization rate in diffuse interstellar clouds'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this