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Centro de Astrofísica da Universidade do Porto

Extracting star formation histories from medium-resolution galaxy spectra

H. Mathis, S. Charlot, J. Brinchmann

We adapt an existing data compression algorithm, MOPED, to the extraction of median-likelihood star formation histories from medium-resolution galaxy spectra. By focusing on the high-pass components of galaxy spectra, we minimize potential uncertainties arising from the spectrophotometric calibration and intrinsic attenuation by dust. We validate our approach using model high-pass spectra of galaxies with different star formation histories covering the wavelength range 3650-8500 ┼ at a resolving power of ~2000. We show that the method can recover the full star formation histories of these models, without prior knowledge of the metallicity, to within an accuracy that depends sensitively on the signal-to-noise ratio. The investigation of the sensitivity of the flux at each wavelength to the mass fraction of stars of different ages allows us to identify new age-sensitive features in galaxy spectra. We also highlight a fundamental limitation in the recovery of the star formation histories of galaxies for which the optical signatures of intermediate-age stars are masked by those of younger and older stars. As an example of application, we use this method to derive average star formation histories from the highest-quality spectra of typical (in terms of their stellar mass), morphologically identified early- and late-type galaxies in the Early Data Release (EDR) of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). We find that, in agreement with the common expectation, early-type galaxies must have formed most of their stars over 8 Gyr ago, although a small fraction of the total stellar mass of these galaxies may be accounted for by stars with ages down to 4 Gyr. In contrast, late-type galaxies appear to have formed stars at a roughly constant rate. We also investigate the constraints set by the high-pass signal in the stacked spectra of a magnitude-limited sample of 20623 SDSS-EDR galaxies on the global star formation history of the Universe and its distribution among galaxies in different mass ranges. We confirm that the stellar populations in the most massive galaxies today appear to have formed on average earlier than those in the least massive galaxies. Our results do not support the recent suggestion of a statistically significant peak in the star formation activity of the Universe at redshifts below unity, although such a peak is not ruled out.

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Volume 365, Page 385
January 2006

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