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Astron. Astrophys. 355, 245-255 (2000)

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On the interpretation of the optical spectra of L-type dwarfs *

Ya. Pavlenko 1, M.R. Zapatero Osorio 2 and R. Rebolo 2,3

1 Main Astronomical Observatory, Golosiiv, 03680 Kyiv-127, Ukraine
2 Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias. C/. Vía Láctea s/n, 38200 La Laguna, Tenerife. Spain
3 Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Spain

Received 14 October 1999 / Accepted 3 January 2000


We present synthetic optical spectra in the red and far-red (640-930 nm) of a sample of field L dwarfs suitably selected to cover this new spectral class, and the brown dwarf GL 229B. We have used the recent "dusty" atmospheres by Tsuji (2000) and by Allard (1999), and a synthesis code (Pavlenko et al. 1995) working under LTE conditions which considers the chemical equilibrium of more than 100 molecular species and the detailed opacities for the most relevant bands. Our computations show that the alkali elements Li, Na, K, Rb, and Cs govern the optical spectra of the objects in our sample, with Na and K contributing significantly to block the optical emergent radiation. Molecular absorption bands of oxides (TiO and VO) and hydrides (CrH, FeH and CaH) also dominate at these wavelengths in the early L-types showing a strength that progressively decreases for later types. We find that the densities of these molecules in the atmospheres of our objects are considerably smaller by larger factors than those predicted by chemical equilibrium considerations. This is consistent with Ti and V atoms being depleted into grains of dust.

In order to reproduce the overall shape of the optical spectra of our observations an additional opacity is required to be implemented in the computations. We have modelled it with a simple law of the form [FORMULA], with N = 4, and found that this provides a sufficiently good fit to the data. This additional opacity could be due to molecular/dust absorption or to dust scattering. We remark that the equivalent widths and intensities of the alkali lines are highly affected by this opacity. In particular, the lithium resonance line at 670.8 nm, which is widely used as a substellarity discriminator, is more affected by the additional opacity than by the natural depletion of neutral lithium atoms into molecular species. Our theoretical spectra displays a rather strong resonance feature even at very cool effective temperatures ([FORMULA]1000 K); depending on the effective temperature and on the amount of dust in the atmospheres of very cool dwarfs, it might be possible to achieve the detection of lithium even at temperatures this cool. Changes in the physical conditions governing dust formation in L-type objects will cause variability of the alkali lines, particularly of the shorter wavelength lines.

Key words: stars: atmospheres – stars: fundamental parameters – stars: low-mass, brown dwarfs

* Based on observations made with the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) operated on the island of La Palma by the Isaac Newton Group at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias; and on observations obtained at the W.M. Keck Observatory, which is operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This observatory was made possible by the generous financial support of the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Send offprint requests to: R. Rebolo, M. Zapatero Osorio, Ya. Pavlenko

Correspondence to: rrl@iac.es, mosorio@iac.es, yp@mao.kiev.ua

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© European Southern Observatory (ESO) 2000

Online publication: March 17, 2000