Thursday, December 17, 2015

Where is the Dust in Distant Galaxies?

In a previous post we wrote about the morphology of a galaxy's star light. Most galaxies have matter that we can see in 3 forms: stars, gas, and dust.

Figure 1: M51 at optical wavelengths of light. Credit: NASA, ESA, 
S. Beckwith (STScI), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

Figure 1 shows a picture of M51 at optical wavelengths of light. The yellow, red, and blue parts of the picture are the regions hosting M51's stars which are visible to us. Along the spiral arms we also see dark structures. The dark parts of the picture are the regions hosting M51's stars which are invisible to us --- the stars which are obscured by dust.

Dust grains in M51 absorb light from these stars and reemit that light at infrared wavelengths. Figure 2 shows a picture of M51 at an infrared wavelength of light. The spiral arms in the infrared picture line up with the dark structure in the optical picture. We know where the dust is in M51. What about the dust in other galaxies?

Figure 2: M51 at an infrared wavelength of light. Credit: IRSA.
As we study galaxies that are further and further away from our own, we lose information on where the dust in these galaxies is. Infrared telescopes cannot produce pictures of a distant galaxy at the same resolution as pictures of M51. We can guess at where the dust is by looking at dark structures in pictures at optical wavelengths. Your eye is good at picking out dark structures in a many-color image. What is a dark structure in a two-color image?

Figure 3 shows a zoomed in picture of M51. The dark structure is black in many places. In many other places the dark structure is adjacent to a red spot, a spot missing blue and yellow colors. Dust grains in M51 are good at obscuring blue and yellow light and less good at obscuring red light. If we measure the brightness of a spot in a red image, and the brightness at the same location in a blue image, many galaxies will have the same ratio between those brightnesses. The ratio comes from two aspects of the dust: the sizes of the grains and the number of grains. A dark structure in a distant galaxy might be a red spot with a weak blue spot.

Figure 3: a cropped and zoomed-in view of M51 at optical
wavelengths of light. Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI),
and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).
The red color in the image of M51 is due to light from Hydrogen atoms. The Hubble Space Telescope has an instrument allowing us to see the light from Hydrogen atoms in distant galaxies; it has another instrument allowing us to see blue light from distant galaxies. I wrote a paper using CANDELS data to compare the brightnesses of the light at the two wavelengths. We conclude that we need more data!

The ratio of brightnesses between red spots and blue spots for distant galaxies is different from the ratio for local galaxies. Dust grains in distant galaxies might have different sizes compared to their sizes in M51, which would make them more or less good at obscuring red light compared to how they obscure blue and yellow light. We cannot distinguish between this hypothesis and the one saying that the number of grains differs.

NASA has a plan to launch several telescopes into space and connect them, which would solve the problem of resolution that prevents us from having detailed pictures at infrared wavelengths of distant galaxies. You can find out more about the Far-IR Surveyor here:

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