Author(s): , , ,
Institution(s): 1. European Space Agency, 2. Space Telescope Science Institute
Up to ages of a few 100 Myr, massive clusters are still swamped in large amounts of gas and dust from their primordial cocoons. This causes considerable and uneven levels of extinction across the cluster that we must understand and measure if we want to extract any physically meaningful parameters, from basic luminosities and effective temperatures to masses and ages. We have developed a powerful method to unambiguously determine the extinction law and the absolute value of the extinction in a uniform way across a cluster field, using multi-band photometry of red giant stars belonging to the red clump (RC). Since these stars share very similar physical properties, they allow us to derive the absolute extinction in a straightforward and reliable way. In the Magellanic Clouds, with about 20 RC stars arcmin−2 or ~150 objects in a typical HST pointing, we can easily derive a solid and self-consistent absolute extinction curve over the entire wavelength range of the photometry, with no need for spectroscopy.
I will show an application of this method to the Hubble Tarantula Treasury Project's observations of the Tarantula nebula, containing the massive R136 cluster. We have measured the absolute extinction towards about 3600 objects and the extinction law in the range 0.3 – 1.6 μm. At optical wavelengths, the extinction curve is almost parallel to that of the diffuse Galactic interstellar medium (ISM), but the value of RV = AV/E(B–V) = 4.5 ± 0.2 that we measure indicates that in the optical there is an extra grey component due to a larger fraction of large grains. Using the RV = 3.1 value typical of the diffuse Galactic ISM would severely underestimate the luminosities and masses and overestimate the ages of the stars in the cluster. At wavelengths longer than ~ 1 μm, the contribution of this additional component tapers off as λ–1.5, like in the Milky Way, suggesting that the nature of the grains is otherwise similar to those in our Galaxy, but with a ~ 2 times higher fraction of large grains. These results are consistent with the addition of “fresh” large grains by supernova explosions, as recently revealed by Herschel and ALMA observations of SN 1987A.