On the Three-Dimensional Structure of Local Molecular Clouds

Catherine Zucker, Alyssa Goodman, João Alves, Shmuel Bialy, Eric W. Koch, Joshua S. Speagle, Michael M. Foley, Douglas Finkbeiner, Reimar Leike, Torsten Enßlin, Joshua E. G. Peek, Gordian Edenhofer

We leverage the 1 pc spatial resolution of the Leike et al. three-dimensional (3D) dust map to characterize the 3D structure of nearby molecular clouds (d ≲ 400 pc). We start by "skeletonizing" the clouds in 3D volume density space to determine their "spines," which we project on the sky to constrain cloud distances with ≍1% uncertainty. For each cloud, we determine an average radial volume density profile around its 3D spine and fit the profiles using Gaussian and Plummer functions. The radial volume density profiles are well described by a two-component Gaussian function, consistent with clouds having broad, lower-density outer envelopes and narrow, higher-density inner layers. The ratio of the outer to inner envelope widths is ≍3:1. We hypothesize that these two components may be tracing a transition between atomic and diffuse molecular gas or between the unstable and cold neutral medium. Plummer-like models can also provide a good fit, with molecular clouds exhibiting shallow power-law wings with density, n, falling off like n-2 at large radii. Using Bayesian model selection, we find that parameterizing the clouds' profiles using a single Gaussian is disfavored. We compare our results with two-dimensional dust extinction maps, finding that the 3D dust recovers the total cloud mass from integrated approaches with fidelity, deviating only at higher levels of extinction (AV ≳ 2-3 mag). The 3D cloud structure described here will enable comparisons with synthetic clouds generated in simulations, offering unprecedented insight into the origins and fates of molecular clouds in the interstellar medium.

Department of Astrophysics
External organisation(s)
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, University of Alberta, University of Toronto, Max-Planck-Institut für Astrophysik, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Space Telescope Science Institute, Johns Hopkins University
The Astrophysical Journal
No. of pages
Publication date
Peer reviewed
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
103004 Astrophysics, 103003 Astronomy
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