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Astron. Astrophys. 351, 1051-1065 (1999)

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The small scale distribution of interstellar dust from studies of obscured galaxies *

S. Thoraval 1, P. Boissé 1 and G. Duvert 2

1 Radioastronomie, CNRS, URA 336, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 24 rue Lhomond, 75231 Paris Cedex 05, France
2 Laboratoire d'Astrophysique, Observatoire de Grenoble, B.P. 53X, 38041 Grenoble Cedex, France

Received 27 January 1999 / Accepted 6 August 1999


We have selected four galaxies lying behind Galactic molecular clouds in order to probe the small scale structure of the latter. Using broad-band (B , V , R and I ) CCD images, we searched for surface brightness fluctuations which might be attributable to spatial structure in the foreground extinction.

Towards the three galaxies occulted by local clouds, we fail to detect such variations: from the lack of "granularity" and/or high degree of symmetry displayed by brightness profiles, upper limits on [FORMULA] as low as 5% are inferred for scales of about 0.002 pc (400 AU). In front of Maffei 1, the extinction is also smooth even if significant fluctuations are seen in addition to a prominent fragment, presumably located at 3.3 kpc in the Perseus arm.

12CO and 13CO ([FORMULA] and 2-1) observations of these four quiescent clouds have been made using the 30 m IRAM telescope in order to perform a correlated study of these tracers and dust. In agreement with previous studies, 12CO and 13CO emission appear to display a much higher degree of variability at small spatial scales than dust extinction.

Our study reveals no evidence for ubiquitous fragments with size [FORMULA] AU in the distribution of dust grains and confirms that the good correlation seen between extinction and CO and 13CO emission on large scales no longer holds at small scales. The local dust-to-gas ratio is then likely to vary locally which may in turn affect the physical and chemical evolution of the gas.

We argue that the small scale structure in the density field (i.e. [FORMULA]) is neither traced accurately by minor molecules like CO, 13CO or C18O (due e.g. to self-shielding and excitation effects) nor by visible extinction (due to the inertia of solid particles). Therefore, direct observations of H2 itself are needed to decide whether or not a significant fraction of the mass is really located within dense cells occupying a small part of the cloud volume.

Key words: ISM: dust, extinction – ISM: clouds – ISM: structure – ISM: molecules

* Based on observations made at Observatoire de Haute Provence (France, operated by the CNRS), Observatoire du Pic du Midi, CFHT and at the 30 m IRAM telescope (Pico Veleta, Spain)

Send offprint requests to: S. Thoraval

© European Southern Observatory (ESO) 1999

Online publication: November 16, 1999