How to calculate molecular column density

Jeffrey G. Mangum, Yancy L. Shirley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

284 Scopus citations


The calculation of the molecular column density from molecular spectral (rotational or ro-vibrational) transition measurements is one of the most basic quantities derived from molecular spectroscopy. Starting from first principles where we describe the basic physics behind the radiative and collisional excitation of molecules and the radiative transfer of their emission, we derive a general expression for the molecular column density. As the calculation of the molecular column density involves a knowledge of the molecular energy level degeneracies, rotational partition functions, dipole moment matrix elements, and line strengths, we include generalized derivations of these molecule-specific quantities. Given that approximations to the column density equation are often useful, we explore the optically thin, optically thick, and low-frequency limits to our derived general molecular column density relation. We also evaluate the limitations of the common assumption that the molecular excitation temperature is constant and address the distinction between beam-averaged and source-averaged column densities. As non-LTE approaches to the calculation of molecular spectral line column density have become quite common, we summarize non-LTE models that calculate molecular cloud volume densities, kinetic temperatures, and molecular column densities. We conclude our discussion of the molecular column density with worked examples for C18O, C17O, N2Hþ, NH3, and H2CO. Ancillary information on some subtleties involving line profile functions, conversion between integrated flux and brightness temperature, the calculation of the uncertainty associated with an integrated intensity measurement, the calculation of spectral line optical depth using hyperfine or isotopologue measurements, the calculation of the kinetic temperature from a symmetric molecule excitation temperature measurement, and relative hyperfine intensity calculations for NH3 are presented in appendices. The intent of this document is to provide a reference for researchers studying astrophysical molecular spectroscopic measurements.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)266-298
Number of pages33
JournalPublications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
Issue number949
StatePublished - Jul 6 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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