Authors: Goicoechea, Javier R.; Lique, Francois; Santa-Maria, Miriam G.


Publication date: 2022/01/27

DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/202142210

Abstract: Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is considered a good tracer of the dense molecular gas that serves as fuel for star formation. However, recent large-scale surveys of giant molecular clouds (GMCs) have detected extended HCN rotational line emission far from starforming cores. Such observations often spectroscopically resolve the HCN J = 1-0 (partially also the J = 2-1 and 3-2) hyperfine structure (HFS). A precise determination of the physical conditions of the gas requires treating the HFS line overlap effects. Here, we study the HCN HFS excitation and line emission using nonlocal radiative transfer models that include line overlaps and new HFS-resolved collisional rate coefficients for inelastic collisions of HCN with both para-H-2 and ortho-H-2 (computed via the scaled-infinite order sudden approximation up to T-k = 500 K). In addition, we account for the role of electron collisions in the HFS level excitation. We find that line overlap and opacity effects frequently produce anomalous HCN J= 1-0 HFS line intensity ratios (i.e., inconsistent with the common assumption of the same T-ex for all HFS lines) as well as anomalous HFS line width ratios. Line overlap and electron collisions also enhance the excitation of the higher J rotational lines. Our models explain the anomalous HCN J= 1-0 HFS spectra observed in the Orion Bar and Horsehead photodissociation regions. As shown in previous studies, electron excitation becomes important for molecular gas with H-2 densities below a few 10(5) cm(-3) and electron abundances above -10(-5) . We find that when electron collisions are dominant, the relative intensities of the HCN J = 1-0 HFS lines can be anomalous too. In particular, electron excitation can produce low-surface-brightness HCN emission from very extended but low-density gas in GMCs. The existence of such a widespread HCN emission component may affect the interpretation of the extragalactic relationship HCN luminosity versus star-formation rate. Alternatively, extended HCN emission may arise from dense star-forming cores and become resonantly scattered by large envelopes of lower density gas. There are two scenarios – namely, electron-assisted (weakly) collisionally excited versus scattering – that lead to different HCN J = 1-0 HFS intensity ratios, which can be tested on the basis of observations.