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01 October, 2018

Three Dynamically Distinct Stellar Populations in the Halo of M49

In the current hierarchical paradigm of galaxy formation, early-type galaxies assemble their masses with time. Their formation entails two phases: an initial one of strong star formation is followed by an extensive growth through accretion and mergers of smaller satellites, that causes a dramatic increase of their sizes towards low redshifts.

Numerical cosmological simulations predict that the mergers which build up the halos of massive galaxies at the centre of clusters and groups involve satellites with mass ratios 1:5. As massive galaxies typically have a larger metal-content, one would expect that the light in these halos comes mostly from stars at about half-solar metallicity and thus with redder optical colours.

It comes as a surprise that the outermost halos of the nearby massive galaxies are bluer instead, indicating that the satellite galaxy progenitors where these stars were born had to be either overall very young in age (hence star-forming) or very small in mass.

Using data obtained with the Planetary Nebula Spectrograph (PN.S) on the William Herschel Telescope (WHT), J. Hartke, M. Arnaboldi and collaborators pursued an original investigation to constrain the mass of the satellite progenitors of the stars in the halos and determine a proxy for their dynamical age by measuring the motions along the lines of sight of hundreds of stars that are in a particular stage of their evolution: the Planetary Nebulae (PNe).

PNe are the late stages of Sun-like stars whose [OIII] 5007 Å emission is relatively strong. Such 'green' monochromatic light makes them similar to beacons whose motions are easy to measure. Previous studies have shown that the distribution of the PN velocities is a fair sampling of that of the parent stars. For this study, Harke et al. used the PN velocities in the halo of the brightest galaxy in the Virgo cluster, NGC 4472 or M49.

By combining accurate velocities from the PN.S instrument with magnitudes measured during an imaging campaign at the Subaru telescope, Hartke et al. identified distinct components in the magnitude-velocity plane of the entire PN sample. Instead of a uniform stellar population floating in the gravitational potential of the galaxy, astronomers identified three populations, one associated with the smooth halo of M49, a sub-component of bright planetary nebulae associate with the recent accretion of a dwarf galaxy (VCC 1249), and a population of stars associated with the intra-group light.

As shown in the following figure, the distinct velocity-dispersion profiles are plotted from the whole, bright and faint subsamples. The combination of precise photometry from SuprimeCam on the Subaru telescope with the accurate velocities measured with the PN.S instrument on the WHT made it possible to identify these populations with confidence.

Line-of-sight velocity dispersion profile as a function of the major-axis radius of the total (open black circles), bright (open light blue diamonds) and faint (filled red squares) planetary nebulae in the halo of M49. The coloured bands indicate the 1-sigma errors. The stellar velocity-dispersion profile is indicated by the dashed black profile. The grey error bars connected with a dashed grey line shows the velocity dispersion of galaxies in the Virgo Subcluster B. The velocity dispersion of the faint-planetary nebulae sample reaches that of the galaxies in the Subcluster B at large radii, which indicates that these planetary nebulae are tracing the motions of the stars in the intra-group light. Credit: Magda Arnaboldi, Johanna Hartke. Large format: [ PNG ].

The intra-group light is from stars that are not bound to individual galaxies, but instead are under the influence of the gravity of the group itself. Hence the measurements of the chaotic motions show an increase with distance from the center of M49, reaching as high velocity dispersion as that measured from the motions of galaxies in the subcluster. This is the first time that the transition from halo to intra-group light is based on velocities of individual stars and indicates that these stars are indeed orbiting in the potential of the group.

The result on the smoothness of the intra-group light and outer halo is also very relevant to constrain the feedback mechanism from star formation and SN explosions in low-mass satellites in cosmological simulations. The results from the study of M49 points towards a fine tuning of these mechanisms such that these low-mass satellites form enough blue stars to contribute a significant fraction (about 10% ) of the total light in the halo as measured in the very outskirts of M49.

More information:

J. Hartke, M. Arnaboldi, O. Gerhard, A. Agnello, A. Longobardi, L. Coccato, C. Pulsoni, K.C. Freeman, M. Merrifield, 2018 "Three dynamically distinct stellar populations in the halo of M49", A&A, 616, 123 [ADS].

The Planetary Nebula Spectrograph (PN.S) is a custom-built instrument mounted at the WHT. This instrument is a double-arm slitless spectrograph that facilitates the identification of PNe and measures their line-of-sight velocities in a single observation. More information on

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Last modified: 04 December 2018