Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Life and death of interstellar dust

In this part of the "dusty posts program" we will talk about formation and destruction of dust in the interstellar medium. Before we embark on this questions we need to know at least two things about dust: its size and composition.

As we mentioned in the last post, the dust betrays its presence by absorbing light, the absorption efficiency at some wavelength depends on the size of dust grains. Absorption is a rather complicated phenomenon because there are many physical processes that can cause absorption in our sightline, light might be literally absorbed by the dust grain or it might be scattered out of our sightline. Scattering is also dependent on the ratio between the wavelength of the scattered light and the dust grain diameter. If this ratio is small we talk of Rayleight scattering, otherwise the process is known as Mie scattering.

Detailed analysis of absorption curves leads us to believe that scattering is caused by small solid solid particles which have a diameter comparable to the wavelengths of visible light (this explains the 1/lambda behavior in the visible part of the spectrum), nonetheless we still need other components to explain some features of the absorption curve.

An average absorption curve, the far infrared is on the left and the ultraviolet on the right. There are some variations in different zones of the galaxy, but the shape of the curve is usually quite similar. We can see the peak of absorption are at 200 nm (or 1/lambda = 4.6 ).

Now let's move to the composition of dust. The Sun being so close to Earth is readily observed and we (somehow naively) assume that it is a typical star and its composition is assumed to be fairly typical of the Galaxy. We can then use the Sun abundance of elements as a guide for relative abundances between it and the interstellar medium.

We know that the relative abundances of the Sun and the interstellar medium are different. The main difference is that some elements have an underabundance of elements compared to the Sun. This elements are usually refractory, meaning that this elements can survive high temperatures without being sublimated, this directly points us to dust, as this elements can condense in dust grains that can survive in the vicinity of stars. Depletion is defined as

and as we can see below, this elements are among others Cr, Fe, Ni, Co, Ti. Despite that, the bulk of a grain is quite similar in composition to the dust you can find in your backyard and is mostly divied in to graphites, silicates and olivines.

Interstellar elemental abundances compared relative to hydrogen compared with the Sun. We can see that refractory elements are heavily depleted. The depletion is a logarithmic quantity defined, meaning that some elements like Ti are depleted by three orders of magnitude.

So, how are dust grains formed? The first idea is to think that they grow slowly in the interstellar medium. The problem with this idea is that actual calculations show that this will take too much time, suppose that at time t=0 the grain has a radius r(0), if we suppose the grain grows by addition of species i with mass m_i moving at a mean thermal speed v_i then the radius at a later time t will be

where epsilon is a "sticky coefficient" that meassures the probability that the m_i will remain attached to the grain and s is the density of the solid grain. Using the typical values for interstellar medium we find that for a typical grain (about the size of visible wavelengths) the time required is

which is too much time if we consider that the value of epsilon is smaller than one, and that the age of the universe is around 13 Gyr.

The solution comes from considering denser regions, in particular the atmospheres of cool stars. The material in stars is originally so hot that it did not contain any solids, but as it outflows in later phases of the life of the star it starts to cool with much higher densities than the interstellar medium and the atoms can arrange themselves in to the most stable molecules at that temperature (usually around 10³ K). When this outer layers are ejected in stellar winds the dust goes in to the interstellar medium. There is some controversy about the formation of dust in the early life of the universe, the most accepted view is that this dust was formed around active galactic nuclei.

Now let's move to grains destruction. The simplest way to destroy a grain is to heat it enough so it sublimates. That indeed happens in the vicinities of young, hot stars. The sublimation temperatures depend on the composition and size of the grain, this results in a stratification of the dust with large graphites closer to the star, followed by smaller graphites and large silicates, at larger distances from the star we can find smaller silicates, olivines, fused quartz and silicates with ice mantles.

A more interesting mechanism comes from accumulation of electric charges in the surface of the dust, if the grain is spherical with a radius a and is carrying a charge of Z electrons then the electrons capture cross section if the speed of the electrons is u_e is given by

When enough electric charge accumulates on the surface the stress it causes on the grain as it tries to redistribute, causes the grain to literally explode! Quite an interesting consequence for the well known fact that charges redistributes on a surface!

It actually results that the capture of species by dust grains has a crucial importance in astrobiology, keep tuned!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

Today it's Christmas eve. Receive the warmest regards from the "staff" of this blog. On this day, 39 years ago the crew of Apollo 8 entered into orbit around Moon, so this is also an special day for space exploration. Not only that, maybe there is a quite special gift under the tree this year: 2007 WD5.

2007 WD5 is an asteroid that will cross Mars orbital path in January 30. There is some chance (around 1 in 75) that it will impact Mars! This asteroid is around 50 meters wide and might create a half-mile wide impact crater. Despite this event is rather unlikely it will cast some serious fireworks in case it happens.

This is the orbital path of 2007 WD5, you can clearly see that it intercepts Mars orbit. The uncertainties in the measurement of 2007 WD5 path don't allow us to assure a collision will happen, actually it's quite unlikely it will occur. In a few days we will have more data.

Update: This asteroid has been recently identified in archival imagery, this has allowed astronomers to refine the orbital parameters, now the odds of a collision are of 1 in 25! Still a rather meager chance (4%), but we still need more data for a more accurate prediction.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dust in the interstellar medium

Today I will give you a brief overview of a topic that's quite close to me: the effects of dust in interstellar medium. There are some regions in the sky that seem to be almost magically depleted of stars, even in very dense regions. The classical example of this "dark nebulae" is the coalsack in the Crux constellation.

The coalsack dark nebula is the best known region where interstellar dust is so dense that it blocks all the light (in the visible frequencies) in it's sightline.

This regions are not depleted of stars, but rather the light of the stars in the sightline is absorbed by dust. This is far from obvious, after all there is no a priori reason to discard the idea that this regions simply lack any stars.

The first conclusive evidence of light absorption in the interstellar medium came from the work of Robert Trumpler who measured the angular sizes of globular clusters trying to calculate its distance from Earth. The idea was simple, let's assume that globular clusters are roughly the same size, then the smaller a particular cluster seems to us, the farther it is. When Trumpler carried on this plan he realized that the there was a linear relation between the size and the distance, i.e. the clusters were bigger as the distance to them increased. This was quite unexpected and also seemed to point to the rather disturbing conclusion that Earth is located in a special place where globular clusters are smaller.

Rather than that, Trumpler realized that the distance was systematically overestimated (so the clusters weren't that big, after all). Then he assummed that the reason for this bias was extinction in the interstellar medium, meaning that something (presumably dust) was absorbing light on its way to Earth.

Further evidence for dust comes from light polarization. When light is reflected from a dust grain it is polarized depending on the alignement of the grain, if the grains are aligned with Milky Way's magnetic field, we can then use the dust polarization as a measure of the direction of the magnetic field.

Measurements of dust polarization, this measurements show that optical polarization is aligned with the magnetic field.

What is the composition of this dust? This depends on many factors. Nonetheless the most important one is the distance to a star, particullary to hot, young stars. This stars (known as early spectral type) are so hot that that dust sublimates in its vecinity. The grains composed of carbonites are more resistent (and bigger grains have a better chance of survival), then the silicates enter the stage. In colder enviroments larger molecules appear on the surface of the grains.

How are this grains formed? Why is dust relevant for astrobiology? Which are the effects of dust on ionized regions? Keep tuned for later posts!

Friday, December 14, 2007


What will happen to the Earth in the far future? Can humanity or it's successors live forever in it? By now most of you know the lore: the sun will eventually consume all of its "fuel" (hydrogen and later helium) in 5 billion years, expand in to a red giant that will devour Mercury, Venus and the Earth. After that the Sun will eject the outers layers of its atmosphere and leave a stellar corpse: a white dwarf which is small, extremely hot object supported by the pressure of electron degeneracy. The ejected outer layers will be ionized by the radiation of the white dwarf and form a nice planetary nebula, like the Helix.

The Helix nebula is one of the best known planetary nebulae, in the astro-lore it is usually asummed that the Sun will produce a similar nebula when it dies.

Well, I recently attended a talk by Klaus Peter-Schroeder, from University of Guanajuato, in his talk he disputed this scenario. Now, let's discuss the good, the bad and the evil ...

  • The good: Previous models assumed a "naive" modeling of mass loss as the Sun ejects it's outer layers based on Reimer's Law, which is basically based on dimensional arguments. An improved version of this law applied to the Sun shows that it will loose enough mass to allow Earth's orbit to enlarge sufficiently to avoid the doomsday scenario.
  • The bad: Well, that doesn't mean that Earth will be an habitable planet. It will be too uncomfortably close to the Sun, but you might still think that we have around 5 billon years to worry about that. Well, that's wrong. The Sun will increase it's energy output in around a billion years (still a lot of time) by a sufficient amount to increase Earth's temperature around 10 K. You might think that it will be an uncomfortable but still bearable change, nonetheless climate models predict that effects of such a change will be catastrophic.

    In "The End of the World", the Doctor travels to Earth's last moments before being engulfed by the Sun. In the show the writers imagined that some "gravity satellites" held back the expansion of the Sun, we now know that it will be tidal dragging to blame for Earth's destruction.

  • The evil: Well, life on Earth will end one day, but at least will Earth survive to total destruction? Not really, despite that the Sun won't grow enough to engulf Earth, a process known as tidal dragging (you can think of it as a sort of "tidal friction" assisted by dynamical drag) will cause the Earth to spiral into the Sun! The model is extremely sensitive to little details, but we can estimate that the doomsday will happen just 500 000 years before the Sun reaches the tip of the AGB branch.
So the lore is actually quite wrong in practically every detail, but wait! There is still a final twist to this plot. The nice planetary nebula that will act as a sort of mausoleum to the star that made life on Earth possible actually requires stronger stellar winds than the Sun can provide. This is still a point of controversy, but at least among the attendants the consensus was the Sun might produce an irregular planetary nebula at best.

Addendum: It results I was being very naive with the raise of temperature. In Klaus own words:

"It is 1 Gyr for a rise of 10% in the solar irradiance, which makes the Earth leave the habitable zone. But in order to raise the temperature by just 10K, we need much less time! It is difficult to compute because a detailed knowledge of the various positive (and negative) feed-backs is required, but it should be of the order of 100 mio years. That is still very long compared to the timescale of the current climate change....! "