Highly Ionized High-Velocity Clouds: Hot Intergalactic Medium or Galactic Halo?

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We use spectroscopic data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) to study the wide range of ionization states of the "highly ionized high-velocity clouds" (HVCs). Studied extensively in O VI absorption, these clouds are usually assumed to be infalling gas in the Galactic halo at distances less than 50 kpc. An alternative model attributes the O VI (and O VII X-ray absorption) to cosmological structures of low-density, shock-heated intergalactic gas, distributed over 1-3 Mpc surrounding the Milky Way. The latter interpretation is unlikely, owing to the enormous required mass of gas (4 × 1012 M⊙). Our detection, in 9 of 12 sight lines, of low-ionization stages (C II/III/IV; Si II/III/IV) at similar high velocities as O vi requires gas densities far above that (nH ≈ 5 × 10-6 cm-3) associated with the warm-hot intergalactic medium (WHIM). These HVCs are probably cooling, multiphase gas in the Galactic halo, bow shocks, and interfaces between clouds falling through a hot, rotating gaseous halo. The velocity segregation of these HVCs in Galactic coordinates is consistent with a pattern in which infalling clouds reflect the sense of Galactic rotation, with peculiar velocities superposed.