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Empirical determination of the shape of dust attenuation curves in star-forming galaxies

V. Wild, S. Charlot, J. Brinchmann, T. Heckman, O. Vince, C. Pacifici, J. Chevallard

Abstract
We present a systematic study of the shape of the dust attenuation curve in star-forming galaxies from the far-ultraviolet (far-UV) to the near-infrared (NIR; ~0.15–2 µm), as a function of specific star formation rate (ψS) and axial ratio (b/a), for galaxies with and without a significant bulge. Our sample comprises 23 000 (15 000) galaxies with a median redshift of 0.07, with photometric entries in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey-Large Area Survey and Galaxy Evolution Explorer-All-Sky Imaging Survey catalogues and emission-line measurements from the SDSS spectroscopic survey. We develop a new pairmatching technique to isolate the dust attenuation curves from the stellar continuum emission. The main results are: (i) the slope of the attenuation curve in the optical varies weakly with ψS, strongly with b/a, and is significantly steeper than the MilkyWay extinction law in bulgedominated galaxies; (ii) the NIR slope is constant and matches the slope of the Milky Way extinction law; (iii) the UV has a slope change consistent with a dust bump at 2175 Å which is evident in all samples and varies strongly in strength with b/a in the bulge-dominated sample; (iv) there is a strong increase in emission-line-to-continuum dust attenuation (&tauV,lineV,cont) with both decreasingψS and increasing b/a; and (v) radial gradients in dust attenuation increase strongly with increasing ψS, and the presence of a bulge does not alter the strength of the gradients. These results are consistent with the picture in which young stars are surrounded by dense ‘birth clouds’ with low covering factor which disperse on time-scales of ~107 yr and the diffuse interstellar dust is distributed in a centrally concentrated disc with a smaller scaleheight than the older stars that contribute themajority of the red and NIR light.Within this model, the path-length of diffuse dust, but not of birth-cloud dust, increases with increasing inclination and the apparent optical attenuation curve is steepened by the differential effect of larger dust opacity towards younger stars than towards older stars. Additionally, our findings suggest that: (i) galaxies with higher star formation rates per unit stellar mass have a higher fraction of diffuse dust, which is more centrally concentrated; (ii) the observed strength of the 2175-Å dust feature is affected predominantly by global geometry; and (iii) only highly inclined discs are optically thick. We provide new empirically derived attenuation curves for correcting the light from star-forming galaxies for dust attenuation.

Keywords
dust, extinction – galaxies: fundamental parameters – galaxies: ISM

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Volume 417, Page 1760
November 2011

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