The elusive synchrotron precursor of collisionless shocks
1 École polytechnique, 91128 Palaiseau Cedex, France
2 Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, CNRS – UPMC, 98bis boulevard Arago, 75014 Paris, France
Received: 23 November 2016
Accepted: 1 February 2017
Context. Most of the plasma microphysics which shapes the acceleration process of particles at collisionless shock waves takes place in the cosmic-ray precursor, upstream of the shock front, through the interaction of accelerated particles with the unshocked plasma.
Aims. Detecting directly or indirectly the synchrotron radiation of accelerated particles in this synchrotron precursor would open a new window on the microphysics of acceleration and of collisionless shock waves. Whether such a detection is feasible is discussed in the present paper.
Methods. To this effect, we provide analytical estimates of the spectrum and of the polarization fraction of the synchrotron precursor for both relativistic and non-relativistic collisionless shock fronts, accounting for the self-generation or amplification of magnetic turbulence.
Results. In relativistic sources, the spectrum of the precursor is harder than that of the shocked plasma because the upstream residence time increases with particle energy, leading to an effectively hard spectrum of accelerated particles in the precursor volume. At high frequencies, typically in the optical to X-ray range, the contribution of the precursor becomes sizeable, but we find that in most cases studied, it remains dominated by the synchrotron or inverse Compton contribution of the shocked plasma; its contribution might be detectable only in trans-relativistic shock waves. Non-relativistic sources offer the possibility of spectral imaging of the precursor by viewing the shock front edge-on. We calculate this spectro-morphological contribution for various parameters. The synchrotron contribution is also sizeable at the highest frequencies (X-ray range), corresponding to maximum energy electrons propagating on distance scales ~1016 cm away from the shock front. If the turbulence is tangled in the plane transverse to the shock front, the resulting synchrotron radiation should be nearly maximally linearly polarized; polarimetry thus arises as an interesting tool to reveal this precursor.
Key words: acceleration of particles / radiation mechanisms: non-thermal / shock waves / gamma-ray burst: general / supernovae: general
© ESO, 2017