Measuring Distances and Probing the Unresolved Stellar Populations of Galaxies Using Infrared Surface Brightness Fluctuations
To empirically calibrate the IR surface brightness fluctuation (SBF) distance scale and probe the properties of unresolved stellar populations, we measured fluctuations in 65 galaxies using NICMOS on the Hubble Space Telescope. The early-type galaxies in this sample include elliptical and S0 galaxies and spiral bulges in a variety of environments. Absolute fluctuation magnitudes in the F160W (1.6 μm) filter (MF160W) were derived for each galaxy using previously measured I-band SBF and Cepheid variable star distances. F160W SBFs can be used to measure distances to early-type galaxies with a relative accuracy of ~10%, provided that the galaxy color is known to ~0.035 mag or better. Near-IR fluctuations can also reveal the properties of the most luminous stellar populations in galaxies. Comparison of F160W fluctuation magnitudes and optical colors to stellar population model predictions suggests that bluer elliptical and S0 galaxies have significantly younger populations than redder ones and may also be more metal-rich. There are no galaxies in this sample with fluctuation magnitudes consistent with old, metal-poor (t>5 Gyr, [Fe/H]<-0.7) stellar population models. Composite stellar population models imply that bright fluctuations in the bluer galaxies may be the result of an episode of recent star formation in a fraction of the total mass of a galaxy. Age estimates from the F160W fluctuation magnitudes are consistent with those measured using the Hβ Balmer-line index. The two types of measurements make use of completely different techniques and are sensitive to stars in different evolutionary phases. Both techniques reveal the presence of intermediate-age stars in the early-type galaxies of this sample. Based on observations with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, obtained at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by AURA, Inc., under NASA contract NAS 5-26555.