The Structure of a Low-metallicity Giant Molecular Cloud Complex

Leroy, Adam K., Bolatto, Alberto, Bot, Caroline, Engelbracht, Charles W., Gordon, Karl, Israel, Frank P., Rubio, Mónica, Sandstrom, Karin, & Stanimirović, Snežana
2009, The Astrophysical Journal, 702, 352


To understand the impact of low metallicities on giant molecular cloud (GMC) structure, we compare far-infrared dust emission, CO emission, and dynamics in the star-forming complex N83 in the Wing of the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). Dust emission (measured by Spitzer as part of the Spitzer Survey of the SMC and Surveying the Agents of a Galaxy's Evolution in the SMC surveys) probes the total gas column independent of molecular line emission and traces shielding from photodissociating radiation. We calibrate a method to estimate the dust column using only the high-resolution Spitzer data and verify that dust traces the interstellar medium in the H I-dominated region around N83. This allows us to resolve the relative structures of H2, dust, and CO within a GMC complex, one of the first times such a measurement has been made in a low-metallicity galaxy. Our results support the hypothesis that CO is photodissociated while H2 self-shields in the outer parts of low-metallicity GMCs, so that dust/self-shielding is the primary factor determining the distribution of CO emission. Four pieces of evidence support this view. First, the CO-to-H2 conversion factor averaged over the whole cloud is very high 4-11 × 1021 cm-2 (K km s-1)-1, or 20-55 times the Galactic value. Second, the CO-to-H2 conversion factor varies across the complex, with its lowest (most nearly Galactic) values near the CO peaks. Third, bright CO emission is largely confined to regions of relatively high line-of-sight extinction, AV gsim 2 mag, in agreement with photodissociation region models and Galactic observations. Fourth, a simple model in which CO emerges from a smaller sphere nested inside a larger cloud can roughly relate the H2 masses measured from CO kinematics and dust.

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