The contribution of TP-AGB and RHeB stars to the near-IR luminosity of local galaxies: Implications for stellar mass measurements of high-redshift galaxies

J. Melbourne, Benjamin F. Williams, Julianne J. Dalcanton, Philip Rosenfield, Léo Girardi, P. Marigo, D. Weisz, A. Dolphin, Martha L. Boyer, Knut Olsen, E. Skillman, Anil C. Seth

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Using high spatial resolution Hubble Space TelescopeWFC3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys imaging of resolved stellar populations, we constrain the contribution of thermally pulsing asymptotic giant branch (TP-AGB) stars and red helium burning (RHeB) stars to the 1.6 μm near-infrared (NIR) luminosities of 23 nearby galaxies, including dwarfs and spirals. The TP-AGB phase contributes as much as 17% of the integrated F160W flux, even when the red giant branch is well populated. The RHeB population contribution can match or even exceed the TP-AGB contribution, providing as much as 21% (18% after a statistical correction for foreground) of the integrated F160W light. We estimate that these two short-lived phases may account for up to 70% of the rest-frame NIR flux at higher redshift. The NIR mass-to-light (M/L) ratio should therefore be expected to vary significantly due to fluctuations in the star formation rate (SFR) over timescales from 25Myr to several Gyr, an effect that may be responsible for some of the lingering scatter in NIR galaxy scaling relations such as the Tully-Fisher and metallicity-luminosity relations. We compare our observational results to predictions based on optically derived star formation histories and stellar population synthesis (SPS) models, including models based on the 2008 Padova isochrones (used in popular SPS programs) and the updated 2010 Padova isochrones, which shorten the lifetimes of low-mass (old) low-metallicity TP-AGB populations. The updated (2010) SPS models generally reproduce the expected numbers of TP-AGB stars in the sample; indeed, for 65% of the galaxies, the discrepancy between modeled and observed numbers is smaller than the measurement uncertainties. The weighted mean model/data number ratio for TP-AGB stars is 1.5 (1.4 with outliers removed) with a standard deviation of 0.5. The same SPS models, however, give a larger discrepancy in the F160W flux contribution from the TP-AGB stars, overpredicting the flux by a weighted mean factor of 2.3 (2.2 with outliers removed) with a standard deviation of 0.8. This larger offset is driven by the prediction of modest numbers of high-luminosity TP-AGB stars at young (<300Myr) ages. The best-fit SPS models simultaneously tend to underpredict the numbers and fluxes of stars on the RHeB sequence, typically by a factor of 2.0 ± 0.6 for galaxies with significant numbers of RHeBs. Possible explanations for both the TP-AGB and RHeB model results include (1) difficulties with measuring the SFHs of galaxies especially on the short timescales over which these stars evolve (several Myr), (2) issues with the way the SPS codes populate the color-magnitude diagrams (e.g., how they handle pulsations or self-extinction), and/or (3) lingering issues with the lifetimes of these stars in the stellar evolution codes. Coincidentally these two competing discrepancies - overprediction of the TP-AGB and underprediction of the RHeBs - result in a predicted NIR M/L ratio largely unchanged for a rapid SFR, after correcting for these effects. However, the NIR-to-optical flux ratio of galaxies could be significantly smaller than AGB-rich models would predict, an outcome that has been observed in some intermediate-redshift post-starburst galaxies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number47
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 20 2012


  • Hertzsprung-Russell and C-M diagrams
  • galaxies: fundamental parameters
  • galaxies: stellar content
  • stars: AGB and post-AGB


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