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The stellar populations of galaxies contain a wealth of detailed information. From the youngest, most massive stars, to almost invisible remnants, the history of star formation is encoded in the stars that make up a galaxy. Extracting some, or all, of this information has long been a goal of stellar population studies. This was achieved in the last couple of decades and it is now a routine task, which forms a crucial ingredient in much of observational galaxy evolution, from our Galaxy out to the most distant systems found. In many of these domains we are now limited not by sample size, but by systematic uncertainties and this will increasingly be the case in the future.
The aim of this review is to outline the challenges faced by stellar population studies in the coming decade within the context of upcoming observational facilities. I will highlight the need to better understand the near-IR spectral range and outline the difficulties presented by less well understood phases of stellar evolution such as thermally pulsing AGB stars, horizontal branch stars and the very first stars. The influence of rotation and binarity on stellar population modelling is also briefly discussed.
During this last decade our knowledge of the evolutionary properties of stars has significantly improved. This result has been achieved thanks to our improved understanding of the physical behavior of stellar matter in the thermal regimes characteristic of the different stellar mass ranges and/or evolutionary stages.
This notwithstanding, the current generation of stellar models is still affected by several, not negligible, uncertainties related to our poor knowledge of some thermodynamical processes and nuclear reaction rates, as well as the efficiency of mixing processes. These drawbacks have to be properly taken into account when comparing theory with observations, to derive evolutionary properties of both resolved and unresolved stellar populations.
In this paper we review the major sources of uncertainty along the main evolutionary stages, and emphasize their impact on population synthesis techniques.
The integrated Balmer lines of unresolved stellar systems have been widely used as age indicators, since they are sensitive to the temperature of the main sequence turn-off. However, the existence of “non-canonical” stellar stages such as hot horizontal branch stars and blue straggler stars (BSSs) can lead to underestimations of the true stellar population ages. Using an optimized Hβ index in conjunction with HST/WFPC2 color-magnitude diagrams (CMDs), we find that Galactic globular clusters of similar metallicity exhibit a large scatter in their Hβ strengths, which does not correlate with their CMD-derived ages. Instead, we demonstrate that the specific frequency of BSSs is responsible for the observed Hβ scatter at intermediate-to-high metallicity, in the sense that, at fixed metallicity, higher BSS ratios lead to larger integrated Hβ strengths. Therefore, the specific frequency of BSSs sets a fundamental limit on the accuracy for which integrated spectroscopic ages can be determined for globular clusters and, probably, other stellar systems like galaxies. The observational implications of this result are discussed.
Globular clusters (GCs) are spheroidal concentrations typically containing of the order of 105 to 106, predominantly old, stars. Historically, they have been considered as the closest counterparts of the idealized concept of “simple stellar populations.” However, some recent observations suggest than, at least in some GCs, some stars are present that have been formed with material processed by a previous generation of stars. In this sense, it has also been suggested that such material might be enriched in helium, and that blue horizontal branch stars in some GCs should accordingly be the natural progeny of such helium-enhanced stars. In this contribution we show that, at least in the case of M3 (NGC 5272), the suggested level of helium enrichment is not supported by the available, high-precision observations.
Using a population number synthesis code, the theoretical time distributions of type Ia supernovae in starburst galaxies are calculated, using competing models for the formation of such events: the single degenerate (a white dwarf accreting matter from a late main sequence or red giant companion) and double degenerate (the merger of two white dwarfs) scenario. The code includes the latest results in determining the progenitors for both models. Examples are the mass stripping effect in the case of the single degenerate scenario and the differentiation between the α- (based on the balance of energy) and γ- (based on the balance of angular momentum) description of energy conversion during common envelope evolution of binaries. The shape and extent of the obtained delay time distributions critically depends on which formation scenario is used. Comparing these results to the latest observed distributions allows to draw conclusions about the constraints put on the theoretical models by these observations. We also specifically investigate the influence of the degree of conservatism during Roche lobe overflow on the delay time distribution. We conclude that the single degenerate scenario alone cannot reproduce the observed delay time distributions, and that most double degenerate type Ia supernovae are formed through a quasi-conservative Roche lobe overflow phase followed by spiral-in, as opposed to a double common envelope evolution.
In spite of its relevance, the Thermally Pulsing Asymptotic Giant Branch (TP-AGB) phase is one of the most uncertain phases of stellar evolution, and a major source of disagreement between the results of different population synthesis models of galaxies. I will briefly review the existing literature on the subject, and recall the basic prescriptions that have been used to fix the contribution of TP-AGB stars to the integrated light of stellar populations. The simplicity of these prescriptions greatly contrasts with the richness of details provided by present-day databases of AGB stars in the Magellanic Clouds, which are now being extended to other nearby galaxies. I will present the first results of an ongoing study aimed at simulating photometry, chemistry, pulsation, mass loss, dust properties of AGB star populations in resolved and un-resolved galaxies. We test our predictions against observations from various surveys of the Magellanic Clouds (DENIS, 2MASS, OGLE, MACHO, Spitzer, and AKARI). I will discuss the implications and outline the plan of future developments.
Most stars are members of binaries, and the evolution of a star in a close binary system differs from that of an ioslated star due to the proximity of its companion star. The components in a binary system interact in many ways and binary evolution leads to the formation of many peculiar stars, including blue stragglers and hot subdwarfs. We will discuss binary evolution and the formation of blue stragglers and hot subdwarfs, and show that those hot objects are important in the study of evolutionary population synthesis (EPS), and conclude that binary interactions should be included in the study of EPS. Indeed, binary interactions make a stellar population younger (hotter), and the far-ultraviolet (UV) excess in elliptical galaxies is shown to be most likely resulted from binary interactions. This has major implications for understanding the evolution of the far-UV excess and elliptical galaxies in general. In particular, it implies that the far-UV excess is not a sign of age, as had been postulated prviously and predicts that it should not be strongly dependent on the metallicity of the population, but exists universally from dwarf ellipticals to giant ellipticals.
We present optical and IR integrated colors and SBF magnitudes, computed from stellar population synthesis models that include emission from the dusty envelopes surrounding mass-loosing TP-AGB stars. We explore the effects of varying the mass-loss rate by one order of magnitude around the fiducial value, modifying accordingly both the stellar parameters and the output spectra of the TP-AGB stars plus their dusty envelopes. We compare these models to optical and near-IR data of single AGB stars and Magellanic star clusters. Neither broad-band colors nor SBF measurements in the optical or the near-IR can discern global changes in the mass-loss rate of a stellar population. However, we predict that mid-IR SBF measurements can pick out such changes, and actually resolve whether a relation between metallicity and mass-loss exists.
In this paper I present a brief summary of recent advances in the fields of stellar evolution, stellar model atmospheres, and stellar spectral libraries, which allow us to build more realistic stellar population synthesis models than those available up to now. Applications of these models to problems of current interest are discussed. Problems that need to be understood and data sets that need to be collected in order to solve issues present in these models are listed.
We present SEDs for single-age, single-metallicity stellar populations (SSPs) covering the full optical spectral range at resolution (FWHM = 2.3Å). These SEDs can be regarded as our base models, as we combine scaled-solar isochrones with an empirical stellar spectral library (MILES), which follows the chemical evolution pattern of the solar neighbourhood. The models rely as much as possible on empirical ingredients as also employ extensive photometric libraries. Thanks to the unprecedented parameter coverage of the MILES library we synthesize SSP SEDs from intermediate- to very-old age regimes, and the metallicity from super-solar to [M/H] = −2.3, all for a suite of IMF shapes and slopes. We propose a new Line Index System (LIS), based on flux-calibrated spectra, to avoid the intrinsic uncertainties associated with the Lick/IDS system and provide more appropriate, uniform, spectral resolution.
Integrated spectra of star clusters are the best test beds for predictions of evolutionary synthesis models. We present spectral fits of star cluster using a variety of recent models. All models allow good spectral fits, but newer ones tend to be better. Ages estimated through spectral fits are not strongly model dependent, but metallicities can differ a lot from one model to another. For some clusters, multi-population fits suggest a combination of very old (1010 yr) and very young (< 108) populations, an artifact of the lack of old and blue stars in the models.
Spectral evolution models are a widely used tool for determining the stellar content of galaxies. I provide a review of the latest developments in stellar atmosphere and evolution models, with an emphasis on massive stars. In contrast to the situation for low- and intermediate-mass stars, the current main challenge for spectral synthesis models are the uncertainties and rapid revision of current stellar evolution models. Spectral libraries, in particular those drawn from theoretical model atmospheres for hot stars, are relatively mature and can complement empirical templates for larger parameter space coverage. I introduce a new ultraviolet spectral library based on theoretical radiation-hydrodynamic atmospheres for hot massive stars. Application of this library to star-forming galaxies at high redshift, i.e., Lyman-break galaxies, will provide new insights into the abundances, initial mass function and ages of stars in the very early universe.
We present a simple, largely empirical but physically motivated model, which is designed to interpret consistently multi-wavelength observations from large samples of galaxies in terms of physical parameters, such as star formation rate, stellar mass and dust content. Our model is both simple and versatile enough to allow the derivation of statistical constraints on the star formation histories and dust contents of large samples of galaxies using a wide range of ultraviolet, optical and infrared observations. We illustrate this by deriving median-likelihood estimates of a set of physical parameters describing the stellar and dust contents of local star-forming galaxies from the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxy Sample (SINGS) and from a newly-matched sample of SDSS galaxies observed with GALEX, 2MASS, and IRAS. The model reproduces well the observed spectral energy distributions of these galaxies across the entire wavelength range from the far-ultraviolet to the far-infrared. We find important correlations between the physical parameters of galaxies which are useful to investigate the star formation activity and dust properties of galaxies. Our model can be straightforwardly applied to interpret observed ultraviolet-to-infrared spectral energy distributions (SEDs) from any galaxy sample.
A full understanding of the physical properties of integrated stellar systems demands a multiwavelength approach since each spectral window shows us the contribution of different types of stars. However, most of the observational effort in stellar population studies has been focused on the optical range. Now, the new generation of instruments allow us to explore the K band, where RGB and AGB stars dominate the light of the integrated spectra. Here we present a K-band spectroscopic analysis of early-type galaxies in different environments. Our sample comprises 12 field early-type galaxies observed with ISAAC at VLT with medium resolution, and they are compared with 11 Fornax cluster galaxies previously reported by Silva et al. (2008). The clear differences found in the infrared DCO and NaI indices between field and Fornax galaxies are discussed, trying to solve the puzzle formed by the near-infrared and optical measurements.
We report on the method developed by Zibetti, Charlot & Rix (2009) to construct resolved stellar mass maps of galaxies from optical and NIR imaging. Accurate pixel-by-pixel colour information (specifically g – i and i – H) is converted into stellar mass-to-light ratios with typical accuracy of 30%, based on median likelihoods derived from a Monte Carlo library of 50,000 stellar population synthesis models that include dust and updated TP-AGB phase prescriptions. Hence, surface mass densities are computed. In a pilot study, we analyze 9 galaxies spanning a broad range of morphologies. Among the main results, we find that: i) galaxies appear much smoother in stellar mass maps than at any optical or NIR wavelength; ii) total stellar mass estimates based on unresolved photometry are biased low with respect to the integral of resolved stellar mass maps, by up to 40%, due to dust obscured regions being under-represented in global colours; iii) within a galaxy, on local scales colours correlate with surface stellar mass density; iv) the slope and tightness of this correlation reflect/depend on the morphology of the galaxy.
The derivation of nebular abundances in galaxies using strong line methods is simple and quick. Various indices have been designed and calibrated for this purpose, and they are widely used. However, abundances derived with such methods may be significantly biased, if the objects under study have different structural properties (hardness of the ionizing radiation field, morphology of the nebulae) than those used to calibrate the methods. Special caution is required when comparing the metallicities of different samples, like, for example, blue compact galaxies and other emission line dwarf galaxies, or samples at different redshifts.
The last decade has seen enormous progress in understanding the structure of the Milky Way and neighboring galaxies via the production of large-scale digital surveys of the sky like 2MASS and SDSS, as well as specialized, counterpart imaging surveys of other Local Group systems. Apart from providing snaphots of galaxy structure, these “cartographic” surveys lend insights into the formation and evolution of galaxies when supplemented with additional data (e.g., spectroscopy, astrometry) and when referenced to theoretical models and simulations of galaxy evolution. These increasingly sophisticated simulations are making ever more specific predictions about the detailed chemistry and dynamics of stellar populations in galaxies. To fully exploit, test and constrain these theoretical ventures demands similar commitments of observational effort as has been plied into the previous imaging surveys to fill out other dimensions of parameter space with statistically significant intensity. Fortunately the future of large-scale stellar population studies is bright with a number of grand projects on the horizon that collectively will contribute a breathtaking volume of information on individual stars in Local Group galaxies. These projects include: (1) additional imaging surveys, such as Pan-STARRS, SkyMapper and LSST, which, apart from providing deep, multicolor imaging, yield time series data useful for revealing variable stars (including critical standard candles, like RR Lyrae variables) and creating large-scale, deep proper motion catalogs; (2) higher accuracy, space-based astrometric missions, such as Gaia and SIM-Lite, which stand to provide critical, high precision dynamical data on stars in the Milky Way and its satellites; and (3) large-scale spectroscopic surveys provided by RAVE, APOGEE, HERMES, LAMOST, and the Gaia spectrometer, which will yield not only enormous numbers of stellar radial velocities, but extremely comprehensive views of the chemistry of stellar populations. Meanwhile, previously dust-obscured regions of the Milky Way will continue to be systematically exposed via large infrared surveys underway or on the way, such as the various GLIMPSE surveys from Spitzer's IRAC instrument, UKIDSS, APOGEE, JASMINE and WISE.
Due to their brightness in infrared, asymptotic giant branch (AGB) stars are in important evolutionary stage to be understood at this wavelength. In particular, in next decades, when the infrared optimised telescopes, such as the JWST and the ELT are in operation, it will be essential to include the AGB phase more precisely into the population synthesis models. However, the AGB phase is still one of the remaining major problems in the stellar evolution. This is because the AGB stellar evolution is strongly affected by the mass-loss process from the stars. It is important to describe mass loss more accurately so as to incorporate it into stellar evolutionary models. Recent observations using the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) enabled us to make a significant progress in understanding the mass loss from AGB stars. Moreover, the SST large surveys contributed to our understanding of the role of AGB stars in chemical enrichment process in galaxies. Here we present the summary of our recent progress.
The M81 group is a highly interacting group consisting of a few large galaxies and about 40 dwarfs of both early- and late-type, thus making it an important nearby laboratory to study environmental effects and the role of interactions in the formation and evolution of dwarf galaxies. We are studying the resolved stellar populations of the early-type dwarf galaxies in this group with available HST/ACS data. We will show results on the metallicity distribution functions and on the potential presence of population gradients for these dwarf galaxies.
Within the Local Universe galaxies can be studied in great detail star by star. The Color-Magnitude Diagram synthesis analysis method is well established as the most accurate way to determine the detailed star formation history of galaxies going back to the earliest times. This approach received a significant boost from the exceptional data sets that wide field CCD imagers on the ground and the Hubble Space Telescope could provide. Spectroscopic studies using large ground based telescopes such as VLT, Magellan, Keck and HET have allowed the determination of abundances and kinematics for significant samples of stars in nearby dwarf galaxies. These studies have shown directly how properties can vary spatially and temporally, which gives important constraints to theories of galaxy formation and evolution.