Star Formation Across Galactic Environments

Open Access
Young, Jason Edward
Graduate Program:
Astronomy and Astrophysics
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
August 22, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Caryl Ann Gronwall, Dissertation Advisor
  • Michael Eracleous, Committee Chair
  • Robin Bruce Ciardullo, Committee Member
  • Leisa K Townsley, Committee Member
  • Christopher Howard House, Committee Member
  • star formation galaxies active galactic nuclei
I present here parallel investigations of star formation in typical and extreme galaxies. The typical galaxies are selected to be free of active galactic nuclei (AGN), while the extreme galaxies host quasars (the most luminous class of AGN). These two environments are each insightful in their own way; quasars are among the most violent objects in the universe, literally reshaping their host galaxies, while my sample of AGN-free star-forming galaxies ranges from systems larger than the Milky Way to small galaxies which are forming stars at unsustainably high rates. The current paradigm of galaxy formation and evolution suggests that extreme circumstances are key stepping stones in the assembly of galaxies like our Milky Way. To test this paradigm and fully explore its ramifications, this dual approach is needed. My sample of AGN-free galaxies is drawn from the KPNO International Spectroscopic Survey. This H-alpha-selected, volume-limited survey was designed to detect star-forming galaxies without a bias toward continuum luminosity. This type of selection ensures that this sample is not biased toward galaxies that are large or nearby. My work studies the KISS galaxies in the mid- and far-infrared using photometry from the IRAC and MIPS instruments aboard the Spitzer Space Telescope. These infrared bands are particularly interesting for star formation studies because the ultraviolet light from young stars is reprocessed into thermal emission in the far-infrared (24micron MIPS) by dust and into vibrational transitions features in the mid-infrared (8.0micron IRAC) by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The work I present here examines the efficiencies of PAH and thermal dust emission as tracers of star-formation rates over a wide range of galactic stellar masses. I find that the efficiency of PAH as a star-formation tracer varies with galactic stellar mass, while thermal dust has a highly variable efficiency that does not systematically depend on galactic stellar mass. Complementing this study of normal star-forming galaxies, my study of quasar host galaxies utilizes narrow- and medium-band images of eight Palomar-Green (PG) quasars from the WFPC2 and NICMOS instruments aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. Using images of a point-spread function (PSF) star in the same filters, I subtract the PSF of the quasar from each of the target images. The residual light images clearly show the host galaxies of the respective quasars. The narrow-band images were chosen to be centered on the H-beta, OII, OIII, and Pa-alpha emission lines, allowing the use of line ratios and luminosities to create extinction and star formation maps. Additionally, I utilize the line-ratio maps to distinguish AGN-powered line emission from star formation powered line emission with line-diagnostic diagrams. I find star formation in each of the eight quasar host galaxies in my study. The bulk star-formation rates are lower than expected, suggesting that quasar host galaxies may be dynamically more advanced than previously believed. Seven of the eight quasar host galaxies in this study have higher-than-typical mass-specific star-formation rates. Additionally, I see evidence of shocked gas, supporting the hypotheses presented in earlier works that suggest that AGN activity quenches star formation in its host galaxy by disrupting its gas reservoir.