Volume 539, March 2012
|Number of page(s)||13|
|Published online||23 February 2012|
An optical/NIR survey of globular clusters in early-type galaxies
III. On the colour bimodality of globular cluster systems
1 University of Nottingham, School of Physics and Astronomy, University Park, NG7 2RD Nottingham, UK
2 Astronomical Institute, University of Utrecht, Princetonplein 5, 3584 Utrecht, The Netherlands
3 INAF – Osservatorio Astronomico di Teramo, via M. Maggini snc, 64100 Teramo, Italy
4 Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
5 European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Str. 2, 85748 Garching, Germany
6 Departments of Physics and Astronomy, Haverford College, Haverford, PA 19041, USA
7 UCO/Lick Observatory, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA
Received: 2 May 2011
Accepted: 16 January 2012
Context. The interpretation that bimodal colour distributions of globular clusters (GCs) reflect bimodal metallicity distributions has been challenged. Non-linearities in the colour to metallicity conversions caused for example by the horizontal branch (HB) stars may be responsible for transforming a unimodal metallicity distribution into a bimodal (optical) colour distribution.
Aims. We study optical/near-infrared (NIR) colour distributions of the GC systems in 14 E/S0 galaxies.
Methods. We test whether the bimodal feature, generally present in optical colour distributions, remains in the optical/NIR ones. The latter colour combination is a better metallicity proxy than the former. We use KMM and GMM tests to quantify the probability that different colour distributions are better described by a bimodal, as opposed to a unimodal distribution.
Results. We find that double-peaked colour distributions are more commonly seen in optical than in optical/NIR colours. For some of the galaxies where the optical (g − z) distribution is clearly bimodal, a bimodal distribution is not preferred over a unimodal one at a statistically significant level for the (g − K) and (z − K) distributions. The two most cluster-rich galaxies in our sample, NGC 4486 and NGC 4649, show some interesting differences. The (g − K) distribution of NGC 4649 is better described by a bimodal distribution, while this is true for the (g − K) distribution of NGC 4486 GCs only if restricted to a brighter sub-sample with small K-band errors (<0.05 mag). Formally, the K-band photometric errors cannot be responsible for blurring bimodal metallicity distributions to unimodal (g − K) colour distributions. However, simulations including the extra scatter in the colour-colour diagrams (not fully accounted for in the photometric errors) show that such scatter may contribute to the disappearance of bimodality in (g − K) for the full NGC 4486 sample. For the less cluster-rich galaxies results are inconclusive due to poorer statistics.
Conclusions. A bimodal optical colour distribution is not necessarily an indication of an underlying bimodal metallicity distribution. Horizontal branch morphology may play an important role in shaping some of the optical GC colour distributions. However, we find tentative evidence that the (g − K) colour distributions remain bimodal in the two cluster-rich galaxies in our sample (NGC 4486 and NGC 4649) when restricted to clusters with small K-band photometric errors. This bimodality becomes less pronounced when including objects with larger errors, or for the (z − K) colour distributions. Deeper observations of large numbers of GCs will be required to reach more secure conclusions.
Key words: galaxies: evolution / galaxies: star clusters: general / galaxies: elliptical and lenticular, cD
© ESO, 2012
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