Characterizing precursors to stellar clusters with Herschel
Context. Despite their profound effect on the universe, the formation of massive stars and stellar clusters remains elusive. Recent advances in observing facilities and computing power have brought us closer to understanding this formation process. In the past decade, compelling evidence has emerged that suggests infrared dark clouds (IRDCs) may be precursors to stellar clusters. However, the usual method for identifying IRDCs is biased by the requirement that they are seen in absorption against background mid-IR emission, whereas dust continuum observations allow cold, dense pre-stellar-clusters to be identified anywhere. Aims: We aim to understand what dust temperatures and column densities characterize and distinguish IRDCs, to explore the population of dust continuum sources that are not IRDCs, and to roughly characterize the level of star formation activity in these dust continuum sources. Methods: We use Hi-GAL 70 to 500 $m data to identify dust continuum sources in the ell = 30deg and ell = 59deg Hi-GAL science demonstration phase (SDP) fields, to characterize and subtract the Galactic cirrus emission, and perform pixel-by-pixel modified blackbody fits on cirrus-subtracted Hi-GAL sources. We utilize archival Spitzer data to indicate the level of star-forming activity in each pixel, from mid-IR-dark to mid-IR-bright. Results: We present temperature and column density maps in the Hi-GAL ell = 30deg and ell = 59deg SDP fields, as well as a robust algorithm for cirrus subtraction and source identification using Hi-GAL data. We report on the fraction of Hi-GAL source pixels which are mid-IR-dark, mid-IR-neutral, or mid-IR-bright in both fields. We find significant trends in column density and temperature between mid-IR-dark and mid-IR-bright pixels; mid-IR-dark pixels are about 10 K colder and have a factor of 2 higher column density on average than mid-IR-bright pixels. We find that Hi-GAL dust continuum sources span a range of evolutionary states from pre- to star-forming, and that warmer sources are associated with more star formation tracers. Additionally, there is a trend of increasing temperature with tracer type from mid-IR-dark at the coldest, to outflow/maser sources in the middle, and finally to 8 and 24 $m bright sources at the warmest. Finally, we identify five candidate IRDC-like sources on the far-side of the Galaxy. These are cold (20 K), high column density (N(H$_2$) gt 10$^22$ cm$^-2$) clouds identified with Hi-GAL which, despite bright surrounding mid-IR emission, show little to no absorption at 8 $m. These are the first inner Galaxy far-side candidate IRDCs of which the authors are aware. Herschel in an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European-led Principal Investigator consortia and with important participation by NASA.The FITS files discussed in the paper would be released publicly WITH the Hi-GAL data (on the Hi-GAL website) when the Hi-GAL data is released publicly.