An accretion disk is a structure formed by diffuse material in orbital motion around a massive central body. The central body is typically a star. Friction causes orbiting material in the disk to spiral inward towards the central body. Gravitational and frictional forces compress and raise the temperature of the material, causing the emission of electromagnetic radiation. The frequency range of that radiation depends on the central object’s mass. Accretion disks of young stars and protostars radiate in the infrared; those around neutron stars and black holes in the X-ray part of the spectrum.
Accretion disks are a ubiquitous phenomenon in astrophysics; active galactic nuclei, protoplanetary disks, and gamma ray bursts all involve accretion disks. These disks very often give rise to astrophysical jets coming from the vicinity of the central object. Jets are an efficient way for the star-disk system to shed angular momentum without losing too much mass.
The most spectacular accretion disks found in nature are those of active galactic nuclei and of quasars, which are thought to be massive black holes at the center of galaxies. As matter enters the accretion disc, it follows a trajectory called a tendex line, which describes an inward spiral.
This is because particles rub and bounce against each other in a turbulent flow, causing frictional heating which radiates energy away, reducing the particles’ angular momentum, allowing the particle to drift inwards, driving the inward spiral.
The loss of angular momentum manifests as a reduction in velocity; at a slower velocity, the particle must adopt a lower orbit. As the particle falls to this lower orbit, a portion of its gravitational potential energy is converted to increased velocity and the particle gains speed.
Thus, the particle has lost energy even though it is now travelling faster than before; however, it has lost angular momentum. As a particle orbits closer and closer, its velocity increases, as velocity increases frictional heating increases as more and more of the particle’s potential energy (relative to the black hole) is radiated away; the accretion disk of a black hole is hot enough to emit X-rays just outside the event horizon.
Accretion disks surrounding T Tauri stars or Herbig stars are called protoplanetary disks because they are thought to be the progenitors of planetary systems. The accreted gas in this case comes from the molecular cloud out of which the star has formed rather than a companion star.
When the accretion rate is sub-Eddington and the opacity very high, the standard thin accretion disk is formed. It is geometrically thin in the vertical direction (has a disk-like shape), and is made of a relatively cold gas, with a negligible radiation pressure.
The gas goes down on very tight spirals, resembling almost circular, almost free (Keplerian) orbits. Thin disks are relatively luminous and they have thermal electromagnetic spectra, i.e. not much different from that of a sum of black bodies. Radiative cooling is very efficient in thin disks.
A fully general relativistic treatment, as needed for the inner part of the disk when the central object is a black hole, has been provided by Page and Thorne, and used for producing simulated optical images by Luminet and Marck, in which, although such a system is intrinsically symmetric its image is not, because the relativistic rotation speed needed for centrifugal equilibrium in the very strong gravitational field near the black hole produces a strong Doppler redshift on the receding side whereas there will be a strong blueshift on the approaching side. Due to light bending, the disk appears distorted but is nowhere hidden by the black hole.
The opposite of an accretion disk is an excretion disk where instead of material accreting from a disk on to a central object, material is excreted from the center outwards on to the disk. Excretion disks are formed when stars merge.