Institution(s): 1. University of Leiden
Interstellar dust is still the dominant uncertainty in Astronomy, limiting precision in e.g., cosmological distance estimates and models of how light is re-processed within a galaxy. When a foreground galaxy serendipitously overlaps a more distant one, the latter backlights the dusty structures in the nearer foreground galaxy. Such an overlapping or occulting galaxy pair can be used to measure the distribution of dust in the closest galaxy with great accuracy. My STARSMOG program uses HST observation of occulting galaxy pairs to accurately map the distribution of dust in foreground galaxies in fine (<100 pc) detail.
The primary motivation is threefold: first, almost half of the light from stars in spiral galaxies is absorbed by the interstellar dust grains and re-emitted at longer wavelengths. To model this accurately, one needs to know the distribution and detailed geometry of dust in galaxies. The travel of light through an inhomogeneous medium is radically different from the smooth one and depends strongly on the medium’s inner structure. Secondly, the model for our Universe today includes dark energy, inferred from the distances to supernova, which themselves may be dimmed by intervening dust. An accurate model for the dust extinction in supernova host galaxies is critical to evolve this technique to the next level of accuracy needed to map dark energy. And finally, the fine-scale maps of dust extinction in occuling galaxies can be used to trace the molecular cloud sizes and the role of turbulence in the ISM of these disks. Furthermore, Integral Field Unit observations of such pairs will map the effective extinction curve in these occulting galaxies, disentangling the role of fine-scale geometry and grain composition on these curves.
The overlapping galaxy technique promises to deliver a clear understanding of the dust in galaxies: the dust geometry, a probability function of the amount of dimming as a function of galaxy type, its dependence on wavelength and evolution of all these properties with cosmic time (from more distant pairs).