The stellar halos of massive elliptical galaxies

Jenny E. Greene, Jeremy D. Murphy, Julia M. Comerford, Karl Gebhardt, Joshua J. Adams

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56 Scopus citations


We use the Mitchell Spectrograph (formerly VIRUS-P) on the McDonald Observatory 2.7m Harlan J. Smith Telescope to search for the chemical signatures of massive elliptical galaxy assembly. The Mitchell Spectrograph is an integral-field spectrograph with a uniquely wide field of view (107″ × 107″), allowing us to achieve remarkably high signal-to-noise ratios of ∼20-70pixel-1 in radial bins of 2-2.5 times the effective radii of the eight galaxies in our sample. Focusing on a sample of massive elliptical galaxies with stellar velocity dispersions σ* > 150kms-1, we study the radial dependence in the equivalent widths (EW) of key metal absorption lines. By twice the effective radius, the Mgb EWs have dropped by ∼50%, and only a weak correlation between σ* and Mgb EW remains. The Mgb EWs at large radii are comparable to those seen in the centers of elliptical galaxies that are ∼ an order of magnitude less massive. We find that the well-known metallicity gradients often observed within an effective radius continue smoothly to 2.5 Re, while the abundance ratio gradients remain flat. Much like the halo of the Milky Way, the stellar halos of our galaxies have low metallicities and high α-abundance ratios, as expected for very old stars formed in small stellar systems. Our observations support a picture in which the outer parts of massive elliptical galaxies are built by the accretion of much smaller systems whose star formation history was truncated at early times.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number32
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • galaxies: elliptical and lenticular, cD
  • galaxies: formation
  • galaxies: stellar content


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