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Volume 462, Number 2, February I 2007
Page(s) 667 - 676
Section Interstellar and circumstellar matter
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1051/0004-6361:20065436

A&A 462, 667-676 (2007)
DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361:20065436

The shape and composition of interstellar silicate grains

M. Min1, L. B. F. M. Waters1, 2, A. de Koter1, J. W. Hovenier1, L. P. Keller3, and F. Markwick-Kemper4

1  Astronomical institute Anton Pannekoek, University of Amsterdam, Kruislaan 403, 1098 SJ Amsterdam, The Netherlands
    e-mail: mmin@science.uva.nl
2  Instituut voor Sterrenkunde, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Celestijnenlaan 200B, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium
3  Mail Code KR, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX 77058, USA
4  University of Virginia, Department of Astronomy, PO Box 400325, Charlottesville VA 22904-4325, USA

(Received 13 April 2006 / Accepted 6 November 2006)

We investigate the composition and shape distribution of silicate dust grains in the interstellar medium. The effects of the amount of magnesium and iron in the silicate lattice are studied in detail. We fit the spectral shape of the interstellar 10$\,\mu$m extinction feature as observed towards the galactic center using various particle shapes and dust materials. We use very irregularly shaped coated and non-coated porous Gaussian Random Field particles as well as a statistical approach to model shape effects. For the dust materials we use amorphous and crystalline silicates with various composition as well as silicon carbide (SiC). The results of our analysis of the 10$\,\mu$m feature are used to compute the shape of the 20$\,\mu$m silicate feature and to compare this with observations of this feature towards the galactic center. By using realistic particle shapes to fit the interstellar extinction spectrum we are, for the first time, able to derive the magnesium fraction in interstellar silicates. We find that the interstellar silicates are highly magnesium rich ( ${\rm Mg/(Fe+Mg)}>0.9$) and that the stoichiometry lies between pyroxene and olivine type silicates ( ${\rm {O/Si}}\approx3.5$). This composition is not consistent with that of the glassy material found in GEMS in interplanetary dust particles indicating that the amorphous silicates found in the Solar system are, in general, not unprocessed remnants from the interstellar medium. Also, we find that a significant fraction of silicon carbide (~3%) is present in the interstellar dust grains. We discuss the implications of our results for the formation and evolutionary history of cometary and circumstellar dust. We argue that the fact that crystalline silicates in cometary and circumstellar grains are almost purely magnesium silicates is a natural consequence of our findings that the amorphous silicates from which they were formed were already magnesium rich.

Key words: dust, extinction -- infrared: ISM

© ESO 2007