A Stellar Population Mystery in a Low Surface Brightness Galaxy

A Stellar Population Mystery in a Low Surface Brightness Galaxy

“Galaxies are made of stars.”

Bob Schommer, quoted by Dave Silva in his dissertation on stellar populations

This tongue-in-cheek quote is a statement of the obvious, at least for the 90+ years since Hubble established that galaxies are stellar systems comparable to and distinct from the Milky Way. There’s interstellar gas and dust too, and I suppose for nearly half that time, people have also thought galaxies to be composed of dark matter. But you can’t see that; the defining characteristic of galaxies is the stars by whose amalgamated light they shine.

The spiral galaxy NGC 7757 (left) and a patch of adjacent sky (right). Both images are 1/4 degree on a side. Most of the sky looks like the patch at right, populated only by scattered stars. You know a galaxy when you see one. These images are based on photographic data obtained using the Oschin Schmidt Telescope on Palomar Mountain as part of the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey-II (POSS-II).

Stellar populations is the term astronomers use to describe the generations of stars that compose the galaxies we observe. The concept was introduced by Walter Baade in a 1944 paper in which he resolved individual stars in Andromeda and companion galaxies, aided by war time blackouts. He noted that some of the stars he resolved had color-magnitude diagrams (CMDs – see below) that resembled that of the solar neighborhood, while others were more like globular clusters. Thus was born Population I and Population II, the epitome of astronomical terminology.

More generally, one can imagine defining lots of populations by tracing groups of stars with a common origin in space and time to the event in which they formed. From this perspective, the Milky Way is the composite of all the star forming events that built it up. Each group has its own age, composition, and orbital properties, and it would be good to have a map that is more detailed than “Pop I” and “Pop II.” Many projects are working to map out these complex details, including ESA’s Gaia satellite, which is producing many spectacular and fundamental results, like the orbit and acceleration of the sun within the Milky Way.

A simple stellar population is a group of stars that all share the same composition and age: they were born of the same material at the same time. Even such a simple stellar population can be rather complicated, as stars form with a distribution of masses (the IMF, for Initial Mass Function) from tiny to massive. The lowest mass stars are those that just barely cross the threshold for igniting hydrogen fusion in their core, which occurs at about 7% of the mass of the sun. Still lower mass objects are called brown dwarfs, and were once considered a candidate for dark matter. Though they don’t shine from fusion like stars, brown dwarfs do glow with the residual heat of their formation through gravitational contraction, and we can now see that there are nowhere near enough of them to be the dark matter. At the opposite end of the mass spectrum, stars many tens of times the mass of the sun are known, with occasional specimens reaching upwards of 100 solar masses. These massive stars burn bright and exhaust their fuel quickly, exploding as supernovae after a few million years – a mere blink of the cosmic eye. By contrast, the lowest mass stars are so faint that they take practically forever to burn through their fuel, and are expected to continue to shine (albeit feebly) for many tens of Hubble times into the future. There is a strong and continuous relation between stellar mass and lifetime: the sun is expected to persist as-is for about 10 billion years (it is just shy of halfway through its “main sequence” lifetime). After a mundane life fusing hydrogen and helium as a main sequence star, the sun will swell into a red giant, becoming brighter and larger in radius (but not mass). This period is much shorter-lived, as are the complex sequence of events that follow it, ultimately leaving behind the naked core as an earth-sized but roughly half solar mass white dwarf remnant.

Matters become more complicated when we consider galaxies composed of multiple generations and different compositions. Nevertheless, we understand well enough the evolution of individual stars – a triumph of twentieth century astronomy – to consider the complex stellar populations of external galaxies. A particular interest of mine are the stellar populations of low surface brightness galaxies. These are late morphological types (often but not always irregular galaxies) that tend to be gas rich and very blue. This requires many young stars, but also implies a low metallicity. This much can be inferred from unresolved observations of galaxies, but the effects of age and composition are often degenerate. The best way to sort this out is to do as Baade did and resolve galaxies into individual stars. This was basically impossible for all but the nearest galaxies before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. The resolution of HST allows us to see farther out and deeper into the color-magnitude diagrams of external galaxies.

The low surface brightness galaxy F575-3, as discovered on a POSS-II sky survey plate (left) and as seen by HST (right). Both images are negatives. Only a tiny fraction of the 6.6 degree square POSS-II plate is shown as the image at left covers a mere 1/13 degree on a side. The pink outline shows the still smaller area of sky observed by HST, which visited the object at different roll angles: the differing orientation of the satellite causes the slight twist in the rectangular shape that is imaged. HST resolves individual stars, allowing construction of a color-magnitude diagram. It also resolves background galaxies, which are the majority of the extended objects in this image. Some even shine right through the foreground LSB galaxy!

Collaborator Jim Schombert has long been a leader in studying low surface brightness galaxies, discovering many examples of the class, and leading their study with HST among many stellar contributions. He is one of the unsung heroes without whom the field would be nowhere near where it is today. This post discusses a big puzzle he has identified in the stellar populations of low surface brightness galaxies: the case of the stars with inexplicable[?] IR excesses. Perhaps he has also solved this puzzle, but first we have to understand what is normal and what is weird in a galaxy’s stellar population.

When we resolve a galaxy into stars in more than one filter, the first thing we do is plot a color-magnitude diagram (CMD). The CMD quantifies how bright a star is, and what its color is – a proxy for its surface temperature. Hot stars are blue; cooler ones are red. The CMD is the primary tool by which the evolution of stars was unraveled. Normal features of the CMD include the main sequence (where stars spend the majority of their lives) and the red giant branch (prominent since giant stars are bright if rare). This is what Baade recognized in Populations I and II – stars with CMDs like those near the sun (lots of main sequence stars and some red giants) and those like globular clusters (mostly red giants at bright magnitudes and fainter main sequence stars).

In actively star forming galaxies like F415-3 below, there are plenty of young, massive, bright stars. These evolve rapidly, traipsing across the CMD from blue to red and back to blue and then red again. We can use what we know about stellar evolution to deduce the star formation history of a galaxy – how many stars formed as a function of time. This works quite well for short time periods as massive stars evolve fast and are easy to see, but it becomes increasingly hard for older stars. A galaxy boasts about its age when it is young but becomes less forthcoming as it gets older.

Color-magnitude diagram (CMD) of the low surface brightness galaxy F415-3 observed by HST (Schombert & McGaugh 2015). Each point is one star. The x-axis is color, with bluer stars to the left and redder stars to the right. The y-axis is magnitude: brighter stars are higher; fainter stars are lower. There are many, many stars fainter than those detected here; these observations only resolve the brightest stars that populate the top of the CMD. The lines demarcate the CMD into regions dominated by stars in various evolutionary phases. Counting stars in each box lets us trace out the recent star formation history, which is found to vary stochastically over the past few tens of millions of years while remaining roughly constant when averaged over the age of the universe (13+ billion years).

Most late type, irregular galaxies have been perking along, forming stars at a modest but fairly steady rate for most of the history of the universe. That’s a very broad-brush statement; there are many puzzling details in the details. F415-3 seems to be deficient in AGB stars. These are asymptotic giants, the phase of evolution after the phase after the first-ascent red giant branch. This may be challenging the limits of our understanding of the modeling of stellar evolution. The basics are well-understood, but stars are giant, complicated, multifaceted beasts: just as understanding that terrestrial planets are basically metallic cores surrounded by mantles of rocky minerals falls short of describing the Earth, so too does a basic understanding of stellar evolution fall short of explaining every detail of every star. That’s what I love about astronomy: there is always something new to learn.

Below is the CMD of F575-3, now in the near infrared filters available on HST rather than the optical filters above. There is not such a rich recent star formation history in this case; indeed, this galaxy has been abnormally quiescent for its class. There are some young stars above the tip of the red giant branch (the horizontal blue line), but no HII regions of ionized gas that point up the hottest, youngest stars (typically < 10 Myr old). Mostly we see a red giant branch (the region dark with points below the line) and some main sequence stars (the cloud of points to the left of the red giant branch). These merge into a large blob at faint magnitudes as the uncertainties smear everything together at the limits of the observation.

Color-magnitude diagram of the stars in F575-3 observed by HST (left) and the surrounding field (right). The typical size of the error bars is shown in the right panel; this causes the data to smear into a blob at fainter magnitudes. One can nevertheless recognize some of the main features, as noted: the main sequence of young stars, the red giant branch below the horizontal line, and a region of rapidly evolving stars above the line (mostly asymptotic giants with some helium burning stars and a few red supergiants). There are also a number of stars to the right of the giant branch, in a region of the CMD that is not explained by models of stellar evolution. There shouldn’t be any stars here, but there are more than can be explained by background contamination. What are they?

One cool thing about F575-3 is that it has the bluest red giants known. All red giants are red, but just how red depends sensitively on their metallicity – the fraction of their composition that isn’t hydrogen or helium. As stars evolve, they synthesize heavy elements that are incorporated into subsequent generations of stars. After a while, you have a comparatively metal-rich composition like that of the sun – which is still not much: the mass of the elements in the sun that are not hydrogen or helium is less than 2% of the total. I know that sounds like a small fraction – it is a small fraction – but it is still rather a lot by the standards of the universe in which we live, which started as three parts hydrogen and one part helium, and nothing heavier than lithium. Stars have had to work hard for generation upon generation to make everything else in the periodic table from carbon on up. Galaxies smaller than the Milky Way haven’t got as far along in this process, so dwarf galaxies are typically low metallicity – often much less than 1% by mass.

F575-3 is especially low metallicity. Or so it appears from the color of its red giant stars. These are the bluest reds currently known. Here are some other dwarfs for comparison, organized in order of increasing metallicity. The right edge of the red giant branch in F575-3 is clearly to the left of everything else.

Color-magnitude diagrams of some of the dwarf galaxies that have been observed by HST. Colored lines illustrate the sequence expected for red giants of different metallicities. These are all well below the solar composition, as measured by the logarithmic ratio of the iron abundance relative to hydrogen relative to that in the sun: solar [Fe/H] = 0; [Fe/H] = -1 is one tenth of the solar metal abundance. The lines illustrate the locations of giant branches with [Fe/H] = -2.3 (blue), -1.5 (green) and -0.7 (red). That’s 0.5%, 3%, and 20% of solar, respectively. Heavy elements make up less than 0.4% of the mass of the stars in these galaxies.

But that’s not what I wrote to tell you about. I already knew LSB galaxies were low metallicity; that’s what I did part of my thesis on. That was based on the gas phase abundances, but it makes sense that the stars would share this property – they form out of the interstellar gas, after all. Somebody has to be the bluest of them all. That’s remarkable, but not surprising.

What is surprising is that F575-3 has an excess of stars with an IR-excess – their colors are too red in the infrared part of the spectrum. These are the stars to the right of the red giant branch. We found it basically impossible to populate this portion of the CMD without completely overdoing it. Plausible stellar evolution tracks don’t go there. Nature has no menu option for a sprinkling of high metallicity giant stars but hold the metals everywhere else: once you make those metals, there are ample numbers of high metallicity stars. So what the heck are these things with a near-IR excess?

The CMD of F575-3 in near-IR (left) and optical colors (right). Main sequence stars are blue, rapidly evolving phases like asymptotic giants are red, and most of the black points are red giant stars. There is a population of mystery stars colored purple. These have a near-IR excess: very red colors in the infrared, but normal colors in the optical.

My first thought was that they were bogus. There are always goofy things in astronomical data; outliers are often defects of some sort – in the detector, or the result of cosmic ray strikes. So initially they were easy to ignore. However, this kept nagging at us; it seemed like too much to just dismiss. There are some things like this in the background, but not enough to explain how many we see in the body of the diagram. This argued against things not associated with the galaxy itself, like background galaxies with redshifted colors. When we plotted the distribution of near-IR excess objects, they were clearly associated with the galaxy.

The distribution of sources with a near-IR excess (red) compared to objects of similar apparent magnitude. They’re in the same place as the galaxy that the eye sees in the raw image. Whatever they are, they’re clearly part of F575-3.

The colors make no sense for stars. They aren’t the occasional high metallicity red giant. So our next thought was extinction by interstellar dust. This has the net effect of making things look redder. But Jim did the hard work of matching up individual stars in both the optical and near-IR filters. The optical colors are normal. The population that stands out in the near-IR CMD mixes in evenly with the rest of the stars in the optical CMD. That’s the opposite of what dust does. Dust affects the optical colors more strongly. Here the optical colors are normal, but the near-IR colors are too red – hence an IR-excess.

There, I was stumped. We had convinced ourselves that we couldn’t just dismiss the IR-excess population as artifacts. They had the right spatial distribution to be part of the galaxy. They had the right magnitudes to be stars in the galaxy. But that had really weird IR colors that were unexplained by any plausible track of stellar evolution.

Important detail: stellar evolution models track what happens in the star, up to its surface, but not in the environment beyond. Jim thought about it, and came back to me with an idea outside my purview. He remembered a conversation he had had long ago with Karl Rakos while observing high redshift clusters with custom-tailored filters. Rakos had previously worked on Ap and Be stars – peculiar stars. I had heard of these things, but they’re rare and don’t contribute significantly to the integrated light of the stellar population in a galaxy like the Milky Way. They seemed like an oddity of little consequence in a big universe.

Be stars – that’s “B” then “e” for B-type stars (the second hottest spectral classification) with emission lines (hence the e). Stars mostly just have absorption lines; emission lines make them peculiar. But Jim learned from his conversations with Rakos that these stars also frequently had IR-excesses. Some digging into the literature, and sure enough, these types of stars have the right magnitudes and colors to explain the strange population we can’t otherwise understand.

It is still weird. There are a lot of them. Not a lot in an absolute sense, but a lot more than we’d expect from their frequency in the Milky Way. But now that we know to look for them, you can see a similar population in the some other dwarfs. Maybe they become more frequent in lower metallicity galaxies. The emission lines and the IR excess come from a disk of hot gas around the star; maybe such disks are more likely to form when there are fewer metals. This makes at least a tiny amount of sense, as B stars have a lot of energy to emit and angular momentum to transport. The mechanisms by which that can happen multiply when there are metals to make dust grains that can absorb and reprocess the abundance of UV photons. In their absence, when the metallicity is low, nature has to find another way. So maybe – maybe – Be stars are more common in lower metallicity environments because the dearth of dust encourages the formation of gas disks. That’s entirely speculative (a fun but dangerous aspect of astronomy), so maybe not.

I don’t know if ultimately Be stars are the correct interpretation. It’s the best we’ve come up with. I really don’t know whether metallicity and dust play the role I just speculatively described. But it is a new and unexpected thing – and that’s the cool thing about the never-ending discovery space of astronomy. Even when you know what to expect, the universe can still surprise you – if you pay attention to the data.