From grains to pebbles: the influence of size distribution and chemical composition on dust emission properties

Ysard, N., Koehler, M., Jiménez Serra, I., Jones, A. P., Verstraete, L. 2019. From grains to pebbles: the influence of size distribution and chemical composition on dust emission properties. Astronomy and Astrophysics 631 DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/201936089

The size and chemical composition of interstellar dust grains are critical in setting the dynamical, physical, and chemical evolution of all the media in which they are present. Thanks to facilities such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and, in the future, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), thermal emission in the (sub)millimetre to centimetre domain has become a very convenient way to trace grain properties.

Aims. Our aim is to understand the influence of the composition and size distribution of dust grains on the shape of their spectral energy distribution (peak position, spectral index) in dense interstellar regions such as molecular clouds, prestellar cores, young stellar objects, and protoplanetary discs.

Methods. Starting from the optical constants defined in The Heterogeneous dust Evolution Model for Interstellar Solids (THEMIS) for amorphous hydrogenated carbon grains and amorphous silicates in addition to water ice, we defined six material mixtures that we believe are representative of the expected dust composition in dense interstellar regions. The optical properties of 0.01 mu m to 10 cm grains were then calculated with effective medium and Mie theories. The corresponding spectral energy distributions were subsequently calculated for isolated clouds either externally heated by the standard interstellar radiation field alone or in addition to an internal source.

Results. The three main outcomes of this study are as follows. Firstly, the dust mass absorption coefficient strongly depends on both grain composition and size distribution potentially leading to errors in dust mass estimates by factors up to similar to 3 and 20, respectively. Secondly, it appears almost impossible to retrieve the grain composition from the (sub)millimetre to centimetre thermal emission shape alone as its spectral index for lambda greater than or similar to 3 mm does not depend on dust composition. Thirdly, using the “true” dust opacity spectral index to estimate grain sizes may lead to erroneous findings as the observed spectral index can be highly modified by the dust temperature distribution along the line of sight, which depends on the specific heating source and on the geometry of the studied interstellar region.

Conclusions. Based on the interpretation of only the spectral shape of (sub)millimetre to centimetre observational data, the determination of the dust masses, compositions, and sizes are highly uncertain.

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