The Role of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Dense Cloud Absorption Features: The Last Major Unanswered Question in Interstellar Ice Spectroscopy

Grant #: NNX11AB03G
Senior Scientist: Jean Chiar

Interstellar dust plays a vital role in the star formation process and the eventual formation of planetary systems including our own. Ice mantles are an important component of the dust: reactions involving simple ices can create more complex (and astrobiologically interesting) molecules, and ices sublimated back into the gas phase influence the gas-phase chemistry. Although polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are commonly thought to be very abundant interstellar species and, as such, are likely to be important components of interstellar ices, their contribution to the infrared spectra and chemistry of ices in dense molecular clouds is an open question. This program makes extensive use of three major NASA-funded databases: the Spitzer archive, the 2MASS archive, and the NASA Ames PAH database in order to answer the last major unanswered question in interstellar ice spectroscopy: what role do PAHs play in contributing to unidentified absorption features observed in dense cloud spectra. 

PAHs are observed to be present and abundant in nearly all phases of the galactic and extragalactic interstellar medium. The evidence for the ubiquity of interstellar PAHs is the widespread well-known family of prominent emission bands at 3.28, 6.2, 7.7, 8.6, and 11.2 micron. To date, these PAH bands have been most easily detected in regions where individual gas phase PAH molecules (neutrals and ions) become highly vibrationally excited by the ambient radiation field. While PAHs and closely related aromatic materials should be present throughout dense interstellar regions, PAH emission is quenched in cold dark dense clouds. Also, in these regions, most PAHs should efficiently condense out onto dust grains, either as pure solids or as guest molecules in icy grain mantles, much as is the case for most other interstellar molecules. Thus, in dense molecular clouds, condensed PAHs will give rise to IR absorption bands rather than emission features. 

While PAH absorption has been identified in a small handful of dense cloud sources (solely high-mass YSOs), there have been no comprehensive comparisons of experimental or computational spectra to the observed unidentified dense cloud absorption features, centered at 6.0 and 6.8 micron, which fall in the range of fundamental PAH vibrational modes. From the Spitzer IRS archive, we have selected 42 lines of sight through dense clouds and 34 lines of sight through colder less turbulent dense cores in order to best characterize PAHs in the most quiescent regions of the dense ISM. Since the 6.0 and 6.8 micron features in these sources show profiles which are different than those observed for YSOs, we have also selected 35 low-mass YSO spectra in order to assess the role the physical and/or chemical characteristics of the PAHs play in the observed features. For all our targets, ground-based 2 to 5 micron spectroscopy has been acquired by us or is available in the literature to aid in the analysis. We have at our disposal the NASA Ames Astrochemistry PAH database and proven techniques for determining continua to extract the dust and ice absorption features. The Ames PAH database is the largest of its kind and includes the spectra of theoretically calculated and experimentally measured IR absorption spectra of both neutral and ionized PAHs and nitrogen-substituted PAHs in inert gas matrices and water-ice. 

Our team includes the expertise of astronomers with over 2 decades of combined experience in observations of dust and ice in dense clouds and the properties of PAH emission in star-forming regions with the expertise of experimental and computational chemists whose specialty is the study of PAHs. Our proposed research will place tight constraints on the PAH concentrations and forms that could be present in interstellar ices which will, in turn, guide future astrochemistry model development and fuel new observations with future NASA facilities such as SOFIA and JWST.