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Revisiting stellar properties of star-forming galaxies with stellar and nebular spectral modelling

L. S. M. Cardoso, J. M. Gomes, P. Papaderos, C. Pappalardo, H. Miranda, A. Paulino-Afonso, J. Afonso, P. Lagos

Context. Spectral synthesis is a powerful tool for interpreting the physical properties of galaxies by decomposing their spectral energy distributions (SEDs) into the main luminosity contributors (e.g. stellar populations of distinct age and metallicity or ionised gas). However, the impact nebular emission has on the inferred properties of star-forming (SF) galaxies has been largely overlooked over the years, with unknown ramifications to the current understanding of galaxy evolution.
Aims. The objective of this work is to estimate the relations between stellar properties (e.g. total mass, mean age, and mean metallicity) of SF galaxies by simultaneously fitting the stellar and nebular continua and comparing them to the results derived through the more common purely stellar spectral synthesis approach.
Methods. The main galaxy sample from SDSS DR7 was analysed with two distinct population synthesis codes: FADO, which estimates self-consistently both the stellar and nebular contributions to the SED, and the original version of STARLIGHT, as representative of purely stellar population synthesis codes.
Results. Differences between codes regarding average mass, mean age and mean metallicity values can go as high as ∼0.06 dex for the overall population of galaxies and ∼0.12 dex for SF galaxies (galaxies with EW(Hα) > 3 Å), with the most prominent difference between both codes in the two populations being in the light-weighted mean stellar age. FADO presents a broader range of mean stellar ages and metallicities for SF galaxies than STARLIGHT, with the latter code preferring metallicity solutions around the solar value (Z = 0.02). A closer look into the average light- and mass-weighted star formation histories of intensively SF galaxies (EW(Hα) > 75 Å) reveals that the light contributions of simple stellar populations (SSPs) younger than ≤107 (109) years in STARLIGHT are higher by ∼5.41% (9.11%) compared to FADO. Moreover, FADO presents higher light contributions from SSPs with metallicity ≤Z/200 (Z/50) of around 8.05% (13.51%) when compared with STARLIGHT. This suggests that STARLIGHT is underestimating the average light-weighted age of intensively SF galaxies by up to ∼0.17 dex and overestimating the light-weighted metallicity by up to ∼0.13 dex compared to FADO (or vice versa). The comparison between the average stellar properties of passive, SF and intensively SF galaxy samples also reveals that differences between codes increase with increasing EW(Hα) and decreasing total stellar mass. Moreover, comparing SF results from FADO in a purely stellar mode with the previous results qualitatively suggests that differences between codes are primarily due to mathematical and statistical differences and secondarily due to the impact of the nebular continuum modelling approach (or lack thereof). However, it is challenging to adequately quantify the relative role of each factor since they are likely interconnected.
Conclusions. This work finds indirect evidence that a purely stellar population synthesis approach negatively impacts the inferred stellar properties (e.g. mean age and mean metallicity) of galaxies with relatively high star formation rates (e.g. dwarf spirals, ‘green peas’, and starburst galaxies). In turn, this can bias interpretations of fundamental relations such as the mass-age or mass-metallicity, which are factors worth bearing in mind in light of future high-resolution spectroscopic surveys at higher redshifts (e.g. MOONS and 4MOST-4HS).

galaxies: evolution / galaxies: starburst / galaxies: ISM / galaxies: fundamental parameters / galaxies: stellar content / methods: numerical

Astronomy & Astrophysics
Volume 667, Article Number A11, Number of pages 26
2022 November

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Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa Universidade do Porto Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia da Universidade de Coimbra
Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia COMPETE 2020 PORTUGAL 2020 União Europeia